Faysal thought that the conflict plaguing Syria since March 2011 had bypassed his home in the north, so he was stunned when the whirlwind of violence came recently to Kobane (Ayn al-Arab).
The 35-year-old civil servant had long seen TV news reports of Syrians fleeing into neighbouring countries from other parts of Syria. It filled him and his wife, a teacher, with a huge sadness. But somehow he believed that his family, including three children, was safe on the border with Turkey.
That all changed in mid-September, when ISIS fighters launched a major offensive to capture Kobane. The group had attacked the predominantly Kurdish area several months before, but this attack was different. Now, the militants were using tanks and artillery in addition to small arms, Faysal said.
Under cover of darkness, Faysal gathered his family and fled to the border, carrying his 90-year-old father, who was barely conscious, and skirting minefields along the way. At one point, Faysal’s son began to cry: “‘Daddy,’ he said, ‘How do we know that one of us will not step on a mine?'”
Eventually the family reached the border with Turkey, following tens of thousands of other Syrian Kurds in what would become the largest exodus into Turkey since the conflict began over three-and-a-half years ago. To date, more than 170,000 people have crossed into Turkey, according to official Turkish figures, while ISIS forces are battling Kurdish forces inside Kobane in an intense struggle for control.
When Faysal arrived in southern Turkey’s rural Suruc district as a refugee, like all those others he had seen on TV, he could not stop the tears from falling. Were it not for his children, he told UNHCR, he would have stayed behind and died defending his land.
Faysal and his family are now living in a tent next to a public school, which has been converted into a temporary shelter. About 1,000 people are living there, all of them having fled for their lives to escape the advance of ISIS. They are receiving assistance from the Turkish government as well as UNHCR and other agencies.
Faysal has joined his sister, his brother who was recently wounded in a battle against ISIS troops, his sister in law and all the children.
Every day, Faysal tells his children that tomorrow they will all be able to go home. But then tomorrow comes and nothing changes. When UNHCR spoke to him, his mother and brother were stuck on the Syrian side of the border. He calls them every day on his mobile phone and even returned to Syria to try to get them through, but each time he was turned back by the fighting.
Standing on a hill overlooking Kobane, like many others, Faysal pointed out his home through the dust-filled afternoon air. “Imagine how I feel when I can see my home so close, when I know that my mother, my brothers, my best friend whom I grew up with, are all within reach and yet I cannot touch them,” he said. He thought it would never happen, that he should become a refugee.