Review 20 months in SE Turkey supporting refugees and IDPs

It is time to review the last 20 months I spent in Gaziantep.

I will never forget the big decision I took in spring 2014 to pack my bag and “go to the field” in order to finally find a job in the humanitarian sector. After endless unsuccessful applications, several volunteer jobs in the refugee support field in Germany and a “career” as a waitress, it was about time to either go or stay and find “another job”. As it has been a matter of my heart for years to support refugees and give them a voice, “another job” has never been an option. Following the advice of people in the field and after long talks with family and friends I started to plan the big step. Due to my prior experience in Turkey, my love for the country, my networks and above all the fact, that Turkey has been one of the major host countries for Syrian refugees, Gaziantep was a reasonable place for me to go. Luckily, the Turkish NGO ASAM offered me a volunteer position in their newly established Multi Service Centre for Syrians in Antep. In order to fund myself I started a crowdfunding campaign. The result was overwhelming, not only in regards to the money I rose, but especially in regards to the support I got from so many people. So I took a plane mid-July and an outstanding experience started!

My time at ASAM was the cornerstone for everything I am doing now. I was new to the area, the field and the work on the ground with people in need fleeing from a terrible war, everybody thought will be over soon. I too, thought back in the days, that the worst time of the situation in Syria will soon be over – unfortunately, this did not come true! In the beginning it was tough for me to listen to all these horrifying and sad story and to realize very quickly, that there will never be enough support for everyone. This proofed me even more, that it was the right decision to come to the region, where the biggest humanitarian crisis since WW2 had developed.

I was lucky to simultaneously become an intern with the German INGO Welthungerhilfe (WHH). WHH back then was remotely working inside Syria and started to support off-camp refugees in Turkey. Despite the fact, that until today most politicians and the media refer to refugees in camps, the majority – more than 80% – live outside the camps as so called “urban refugees”. They are mostly excluded from services, like health, shelter, food, education, protection and have almost no access to the labour market.

Shortly after I started with WHH, IS gained vast territories in Syria and Iraq and forcibly displaced thousands of people in Northern Iraq, especially brutal in the areas, where Yazidis lived. Many of them fled to Turkey, but as they are not Syrians, hence fall under a different regime in Turkish foreigner/refugee law, the support for them was even less than for the millions of Syrians. The majority of the displaced families fled further North in their country, to the areas reigned by the Kurdish government – Kurdistan Iraq. Another humanitarian response was needed in order to give those IDPs rapid emergency assistance, such as food, shelter and basic needs.

As winter was approaching, months, which pose an extraordinary challenges on families residing in makeshift camps/shelter, unfinished buildings or ruins, winter aid in Turkey, Syria and Iraq was a huge need. For two weeks I was part of a team distributing winter items to hundreds of families house-to-house in Gaziantep. I will never forget that! In the city, which is the hub for the UN and all INGOs, where I lived with friends and had nice evenings out, the housing situation of the most vulnerable families made me speechless and often very sad! Again, I realized, we will never be able to serve and support everyone. This puts me and I assume many of my colleagues in a difficult situation, and even though we all work based on so-called “vulnerability criteria”, you often feel uncomfortable to decide, who receives aid and who does not. A challenge I have faced since then and will face in the future. Who are we to decide? How can I judge? And how can I reach out to the most vulnerable?

In summer 2015, I was sent on my first mission to WHH’s sub-office in Dohuk, Northern Iraq. Before this mission, I admit, I was afraid. The word “Iraq” itself has been for years and years associated with war and terror and I had friends, who fled Iraq. I had no clear imagination of how things were. If someone would have told me, that not even 9 months later, I will voluntarily move to Iraq, I would have laughed out loud! But the more I visited Kurdistan Iraq, I realized how much work has to be done here as well.

After a while I decided to apply within the organization for a job in Dohuk. After more than 1,5 years in Southeast Turkey, I felt it was time to develop further in another region to learn more and to be able to do my job better – one day being able to advocate on higher levels for refugee rights!

Unfortunately, the situation in Syria became not better at all, and, like most INGOs we were forced to remotely manage projects – for me an unsatisfying task – too far away from the people I want to support, sitting in a bubble on the other side of the border. Moreover, the security situation in Turkey has constantly deteriorated since the horrible suicide bombing in Suruc in summer 2015. Not only made it our work harder, due to access problems, but makes me particularly sad. It shows as well, that times really do not look good for the region….

At the same time the topic “refugees” reached Europe. I will not go into details about this here. Even though I was aware of the weaknesses of the European Asylum System and its consequences on people in need and the European countries, I would have never imagined how weak Europe handles the current and ongoing situation, leaving basic human rights and international law behind.

There is a lot of work to be done – more than ever I believe that we need more humanity, hearts and minds in order to face the challenges here in the region as well as worldwide!

I now started my new job in Dohuk – a job in a country, which at the moment can be seen as one of the ‘forgotten crises’. Even though Iraq hosts more than 10 million people in need of humanitarian assistance, more than 3 million people are internally displaced and more than 250.000 Syrian refugees reside in the country, it is not on the international agenda any more.

My heart stays with Syria and its people, my Syrian friends and colleagues, and I will continue to support, but at the same time there are millions of people just a few kilometers away, who also need individual and international support. I will also try to do my best here – together with colleagues and friends!








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