Nestled in obscurity between Antakya’s vast crop plains, flanked by distant Turkish and Syrian mountains, lies Demirkopru Koyu, village of the Iron Bridge. Located on the River Asi, Demirkopru connects Antioch to today’s Reyhanli district, the southernmost city of the Hatay region, where floods of Syrians have sought refuge since the civil war erupted.
Immediately off the highway down a wide dirt road, past the dilapidated mosque on the left, heaps of garbage and a wrought iron fence lead to the front door of the Koksal family. The three-room shelter, once a cow stable, is larger than those of other refugees in the village, though entirely without hot water or furniture. Bamboo mats and thin cushions furnish the cement floors on which they sleep, five to a room, a single fan blowing the stifling air from one room to another.
“We are more fortunate than most because we have each other,” said Mervan, 66 and the patriarch of the family. Originally from Fen el Semali village, in Hama, Mervan crossed into Turkey a year ago with his elderly father, his wife, and their seven children, leaving their home and all of their belongings. Not even a photograph remains in their possession. His brother, Mehmed, and sister-in-law, Azzam, two nephews and a niece, Semuha, joined them shortly thereafter with nothing but the clothes on their backs.
“There is no ending to this war,” he said, “because whoever wins will always have an enemy facing him. Assad will take the victory of destroying our country.”
From 7-year-old Rabi to 18-year-old Azlemah, everyone in the house looks for work out in the fields on a daily basis. Still, the family can hardly make ends meet.
Prices of basic goods in the area have increased extortionately as Turkish businessmen are seizing the opportunity the war provides to boost their earnings. Shanty apartments that once cost 80 Turkish Lira a month have nearly doubled in rent, and bread, milk and egg prices have soared to almost three times what they were two years ago. For Turks, however, the prices remain at market value while easily identifiable refugees--with critical needs and no alternatives--are easy prey.
“We owe the market money, we are in debt to the landlord and my children are hungry. We never had much, but I’ve always been able to feed my children,” said mother Ayesha, Mervan’s wife.
The family hasn’t been able to pay the 250TL rent and 100TL electric bills in two months, and they live primarily on homemade bread, as they cannot afford the 1.5TL ($0.72) loaf.
Some locals, however, have played a vital role in assimilating the refugees, aiding them financially and helping them to find work. The village’s elected mayor, Huseyin Sahan, is in the process of finalizing building plans for an Arabic-speaking school, which will accommodate 80 students and feature Turkish language and cultural courses in September.
“We need longevity, and these kids need to be able to survive in Turkey for the duration of this conflict, which isn’t ending anytime soon,” he said.
Mervan’s 86-year-old father, Muhammed, is skeptical of the future of his country, having witnessed two generations of brutal Assad rule.
“They will keep their kingdom, they will kill women and children, they will bomb our land until they strike gold. I’ll never see Syria again,” he said.
The Koksals are one of 65 Syrian families seeking the refuge of shacks and stables in Demirkopru, one family of a total of 200,000 refugees in the region living outside of border camps.
The conditions of the state-run camps are far from adequate, in staff, finances and material resources. But the hardships of those who live beyond their borders are even greater. These villagers are without adequate food daily, living mostly on boiled water and crackers. Medical supplies are scarce, many children need immediate attention, and those previously receiving treatment for their ailments in Syria have been without medicine for one or more years. Close quarters and lack of hygiene allow illness and infection to run rampant, particularly among children, who constitute more than half of the refugee population.
Mother Fatma Nacus and her husband, Ahmad, had their baby, Hanen, two months ago. Hanen has been tormented with pertussis since she was one-week-old.
Semuha, 3, has lived with a deep, phlegm-filled cough for nearly a year, inhibiting her physical activity and damaging her voice.
Alesir, having fled her Syrian village with three orphans, was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2009 and was receiving treatment before being forced out of the country. More than 40 kilometers to the nearest town, poor and increasingly in pain, she is desperate for medical attention.
As is often the problem with refugees living in these rural communities, aid organizations have not attended to the area, either because it is geographically far and transportation is difficult, or because they are unaware of its existence. Though one aid organization has visited the village to drop food, water and basic medical supplies, the aid has been sporadic and short-term, unable to address increasing need on a more permanent basis.
Despite the increasingly violent conflict, the majority of these villagers are eager to return to Syria.
“Our greatest hope is for our return to our land,” said Mehmed, “but we are with the people, and we will wait, God willing, for them to be victorious.”