“You! Stop!” yelled the man dressed in dirty clothes running toward me after he spotted me taking a picture in a public park near the Turkish-Syrian border. He snatched the camera from my hands. “I am police!”
This was no ordinary park. Three months ago, when official Syrian refugee container camps in and around the Turkish city of Kilis filled beyond capacity, Turkish authorities began bringing Syrian families who were fleeing the war at home to Hanan Garden, an area about the size of a football field with trees scattered throughout.
Now more than 3,000 Syrians live on dirt and cardboard in the park, with tarps strung between trees overhead. There is no privacy and little in the way of aid or hope. Some refugee camps inside Syria have tents donated by the UN’s refugee agency and other aid organizations, but Hanan Garden in Kilis remains hidden from most NGO assistance.
Turkish police armed with automatic weapons patrol the perimeter of Hanan Garden, and as I experienced firsthand, undercover police dressed as refugees are stationed inside the camp to maintain order and keep out journalists and photographers. Refugees surmise this is because Turkish authorities are embarrassed by the appalling living conditions and want to keep Hanan Garden under wraps until they finish building more official camps and move the Syrians elsewhere.
A group of Syrian men living in Hanan Garden helped me when the policeman stole my camera. They surrounded him, insisting I was their friend, which I was. I had been to the park and spoken with them more than a dozen times in the preceding weeks to learn about their living conditions. After much coaxing by my Syrian friends, the policeman returned my camera, pictures deleted. These are the ones I had already downloaded.
A bomb explodes in northern Syria, as seen from my hotel just across the border in Kilis, Turkey. The sights and sounds of the war next door serve as a reminder to refugees living in Kilis of why they left home.
Kilis is a dusty town, which is now rumored to be home to as many Syrians as Turks. “Many years ago Kilis was actually part of Syria. And now look…we’re taking it back!” a refugee named Ahmed told me.
While some refugees live in houses, garages, or in large housing containers in the official Turkish camp by the border, Kilis’ least fortunate arrivals have been forced to sleep on dirt and cardboard.
Mostafa shows me the Ramadan box that Turkish police delivered to each family as a gift for the holy month. It contained 300 milliliters of water, a small bread roll, a piece of cheese, ten olives and condiment packets of jam and honey. Each family received one box. According to writing on the exterior, the boxes were donations from Saudi Arabia.
Refugees living in Hanan Garden line up outside public spigots and drainpipes in the vicinity to get drinking water for themselves and their families.
Ismael (left) has been searching for jobs in Turkey, but has been turned down every time because he doesn’t speak fluent Turkish. Some Syrian refugees are exploited for cheap illegal labor. A computer expert I met named Bilal (not pictured) works a 12-hour day as a repair specialist so he can bring home $10 each evening to support his wife and newborn son.
A father comforts his daughter, who is afraid of the camera.
The Turkish authorities have repurposed a parking lot into a portable toilet area. But its location is inconvenient for many of the refugees. Young children can sometimes be seen wandering naked and defecating in the dirt, and waste sometimes leaks down the hill.
Two boys pose with toy guns in a dusty open area near Hanan Garden. Gripped by boredom, children often run around the camp firing pellet guns. “They’re playing Free Syrian Army versus the regime,” an older refugee told me.
Sunset in Kilis during the holy month of Ramadan. Syrian refugees, most of whom are practicing Muslims, prepare the evening meal of iftar to break their daylight fast.
A refugee tears apart some scrap wood to fuel her cooking fire.
A family from Aleppo, Syria, awaits the call to evening prayer so they can begin their Ramadan feast on the street outside their tent.
Many Syrian children were injured during the war. This girl’s wounded arm will heal, but others who were badly burned may carry the evidence of their pain for the rest of their lives.
These men living in Hanan Garden say the worst parts of life in the camp are the boredom and the uncertainty. They want to know when they’ll finally be able to move into an official container camp, where at the very least they won’t have to sleep on dirt and cardboard.
Ben Taub is a journalist who lived along the Turkish-Syrian border for six weeks this summer to study life on the fringe of war. His previous work has been published in Vice, The Guardian, CNN and can also be found here. He is studying philosophy at Princeton University.