“Just to Keep My Heart Safe”


On the morning of November 5, I visited the CARE team responding to the needs of recently-arrived refugees from Kobane, Syria.

I visited a CARE distribution of blankets and hygiene kits in a small rural village south of the town of Suruç, Turkey, in sight of the city of Kobane, perhaps four kilometers off in the distance. Wisps of smoke hung in the air over that besieged city, a reminder of the ongoing fighting there. People from Kobane arrived in September and early October with nothing but the clothes on their back, clothes meant for the summer climate. Now, as winter nears, the temperature already drops to four degrees Celsius at night and people are not prepared for the cold. 

In the village, my colleague Fatouma Zara and I met with some women from a group of 26 people living in an unused compound. The group consists of just five men. The rest are all women and children. We spoke with an elderly woman named Aisha, who was wearing a flowered headscarf and displaying faded facial tattoos typical of Kurdish women of her generation. Aisha said that the rough-hewn compound was owned by local Kurds living in a far-away city who had sent the keys to the empty buildings to help their fellow Kurds from Kobane. The landlords are even paying the electricity bills so that their guests can be comfortable. This is a great example of the cross-border solidarity exhibited by local populations in Turkey. That said, the capacity of communities to help the refugees is being severely stretched.

How long has it been since you crossed the border, I asked. “Forty-eight days” was the response – exactly 48 days since September 18, when fighting in Kobane tore their lives asunder. It is poignant that Aisha did not say “seven weeks” or “a month and a half,” but “48 days,” like a prisoner drawing hash marks on the wall, counting the days till she can go home. But the problem is that this situation is dragging on, and we do not have any idea when it will be safe for the Kobane refugees to return. 

The resilience of these refugees is striking – they are able to smile and laugh, trying to retain a semblance of normalcy in spite of a very uncertain future. But they have been through horrible things and are facing daunting challenges. One older man spoke of his son being killed in the chaos before they fled, and three women reported that they were feeding their infants with baby formula rather than breast milk because fear and trauma caused their breast milk to dry up. One baby had a pronounced cough from a nagging respiratory infection that would not go away. “I have to borrow money to buy milk for my little girl,” one father told us.

The people with whom we met have received little aid at all, certainly not enough for a viable living. They want to work, but opportunities to work are few and often far away from where they have found shelter. Some find daily wage labor picking cotton, but even that limited opportunity will cease in coming weeks due to the season. They cite their most pressing needs as food, blankets and mattresses, and winter clothes, in that order.

CARE is coordinating closely with other agencies to meet their needs. CARE continues to distribute blankets, mattresses, food, and hygiene kits while preparing a major distribution of winter clothes and boots and other items. The assistance that we have received thus far enables us to continue our work with the Kobane refugees until early 2015, but this crisis is likely to be protracted. We will need more support to assist women like Aisha to rebuild their lives and their livelihoods over the coming year.

CARE staff members of many nationalities have shown great dedication and commitment, as well as resilience, doggedly pressing forward to conduct distributions and provide essential aid as quickly as possible. They are exposed to heart-wrenching stories of personal loss and sorrow; the long hours of work combined with a heavy emotional toll to make the work extremely taxing. One team member told me that “our staff become the carriers of heavy stories.” Another young woman said that “sometimes I have to take a fifteen-minute break from work just to keep my heart safe.”

The members of the CARE team are grateful for the opportunity to help alleviate the suffering of the courageous, hardy Syrians who have recently crossed the border. We count on the generosity of the international community to permit us to continue this important work with the Kobane refugees.

Written by John Uniack Davis, CARE Turkey Country Director