Bab Al Salam (the door of peace) is a camp for Syrian displaced people, squashed against the border with Turkey in the North West of Syria. It is one of the first camps set up in the area in 2012 as many people, desperate to leave their worn torn country, reached the boarder but in many cases could not cross and had to settle there. The first time I set foot in Syria, with a bunch of other Italian volunteers, and few bags of formula milk, I landed in this place: nothing and no one could have ever prepared me to what was expecting me across the concrete barriers and the barber wires of Oncupinar border.
2012 was a time when the Syria conflict was raging at its highest: the fighting infuriated in many areas of the north; barrel bombs, shelling and chemical weapons were thrown on helpless civilians days and nights and thousands of people were forced to flee their houses with small belonging in search of a safer place to stay.
The result of this indiscriminate violence was Bab Al Salam: an overcrowded, muddy and smelly area with thousands of worn-out tents, no running water, no electricity, no hygienic facilities, no education support and very little food provided by NGOs that, at the time, were still trying to organise themselves for a crisis unravelling in the biggest humanitarian tragedy of our times.
My excitement for having reached Syria and being able to help people sank in the very first minute I realised the enormity of that disaster and the insignificance of those 2 bags of formula milk that were supposed to serve some thousands of babies in need of nutrition.
After that first visit, stubborn and careless of people advises, I went back many more time to that camp, with more milk, more clothes, more money, more food… and it was in one of those trip that I met a tiny, sneezing, ginger hair little thing named Wahida that clung to my neck and decided I was the one in charge of taking care of her… and so I did for more than 2 years.
All of a sudden and without giving me any chance to say goodbye or explaining my disappearance, in February 2015, Turkey closed the Bab Al Salam border with Syria and no one was any more allowed in (or out). Not one day has passed since that February, without me dedicating a thought to Wahida and my dusty, messy, loud Bab Al Salam camp that had given me so many emotions, so many tears and so much humanity.
Wahida’s mum managed, through the years, to find my phone number and we kept in touch with incomprehensible (for me) messages in Arabic, a lot of little hearts and smiley faces and some short English scripts.
Today I am in Bab Al Salam again. After 4 and half years of waiting, I finally got the authorization to go back to the camp. I feel torn apart by a mix of emotions going from the joy of seeing again so many families I have lost contacts with, to the horror of realizing that nothing has changed. Bab Al Salam is untouched, unchanged, stuck where I left it nearly 5 years ago…maybe some more running water, a bigger hospital, and some tents turned into semi-permanent houses… and this is the real tragedy: this is no longer a temporary settlement for displaced people that had to leave their house for few weeks due to the bombing… this has become a permanent village, this has become their new home.
11,000 people leave here now having nowhere to return to, most of the children I used to help in 2013 and 2014 are no longer children, they are teenager, some married very young and have kids… and they have spent nearly all their life in this hell. They know nothing else.
And then there is Wahida: after 5 years we run into each other arms and do not separate for the more than 2 hours; she is no longer the little thing I met in 2013, she is now 11 years old, but still tiny, malnourished and in grade 2 at school while she should be in grade 5.
She is one of the millions of Syrian children that have lost their childhood in this conflict, that have spent day after day hidden in dark tents, that have missed their educations, have no understanding of the external world, don’t know what a proper house is, a garden, or a real bed.
The tragedy of the Syrian people has started with the war but continues now for millions of shattered lives, lost identities, no place to return, destroyed families. Each and every Syrian I met in the past 7 years, from refugees, displaced people, friends or colleagues have a story to tell that leave you hanging in a limbo of incredulity and deep sorrow, that make you wonder how can a human being, after all of this, still find the strength to carry on, the resilience to keep fighting, the hope that things can still change. If THEY don’t give up, who are WE to even think of doing it?
Going back to Turkey in the late afternoon, with a heavy heart for not being able to stay longer and after many hugs and promises to come back soon, I feel stronger myself, thinking that Wahida now is just across a border that doesn’t seem so closed anymore: If I can not save you at least I can take care of you for now, and with the help of many other generous people the number of Wahida we can look after may become very very big.