Syrian Exodus: “Fear is Inside Your Body, Like an illness”

“We don't talk about our feelings, because no words can express them,” he says. “We started to feel that this fear is like an illness, a physical condition. You feel it inside you, overwhelming you. It's actually inside your body, like an illness.”

With a haunting gaze, Okla lights up another cigarette. He is not in Syria anymore, but in the south of Turkey. The 48-year-old describes the dangers faced by his family in the last months and his words travel once and again back to Syria.

“We can’t get rid of this fear, because when we hear the sound of a plane, our minds go back in time,” he says. “It’s not easy to overcome.”

The Syrian crisis has forced over 2.2 million people to flee the country. In Turkey there are more than 600,000 refugees, according to the authorities. Most live outside the camps set up along the border.

Yahya is living temporarily in Kahramanmara, a town in southern Turkey where he works as a construction worker, while his family are still staying in a refugee camp in Kilis, around 150 kilometers [90 miles] away.

“The situation is much better here than in Syria,” he says, showing signs of relief. “At least it’s a safe place, there are no air strikes.”

Yahya has left behind war and destruction, but now the reality of being a refugee is becoming clear–the economic uncertainty, the language they can't understand, the dislocation. I

His journey was set in motion when air strikes wiped out his neighborhood on the outskirts of Aleppo while he was painting a door in his house. “The house was destroyed. They killed the people who stayed,” he remembers. “When they found the bodies they couldn’t even bury them.”

The family fled through villages until they reached a transit camp sheltering over 10,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) on the border between Syria and Turkey, not very far from one of the hospitals run by Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in northern Syria.

They were not yet beyond the reach of the war, however. “A missile landed seven meters  from our tent, but it didn’t go off,” he sighs. “The kids were terrified.”

He left soon after for Turkey. “My dream is not Turkey or staying in a camp, but living in my own house, in my country,” he insisted then. Five months later, he now lives in a small flat in southern Turkey. He feels much safer, but going back home, as he still hopes to do, seems more and more unlikely as time goes by.

MSF is running six hospitals in northern Syria. In neighboring Turkey, the humanitarian organization is supporting, in collaboration with the local NGO Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly (HCA), a clinic with an average of 170 monthly consultations and a mental health project for Syrian refugees in the city of Kilis.  

“We can’t get rid of this fear, because when we hear the sound of a plane, our minds go back in time,” he says. “It’s not easy to overcome.”

Yahya Okla