The labyrinth of white tents and sand paths of Fidanlik Park leads us into the depths of one of the largest refugee camps in the country, on the outskirts of Diyarbakir, in southeastern Turkey. We almost give up after a brief coversation with the guards that abruptly say ‘No!’ to all our requests to visit the camp. But then, the crowd pulls us in, pushing the guards away and paving our way into their makeshift ‘headquarters’, where they serve us tea.
I’d read a little bit about the Yazidi refugee camp in Diyarbakir beforehand, although the information online is still scarce, and what I read were mostly reports of negligence and strict no access policy for foreign journalists without expressed permission from the city authorities. There are almost two million refugees in Turkey right now, and about 21,000 of them are Yazidis from Iraq and Syria, persecuted by ISIS and forced to cross borders into Turkey.
‘Maybe it is because we are not Muslims’, our guide tells us. He used to work with Americans in Iraq and speaks good English. ‘All my family left Sinjar. We had to hide, cross endless mountain ranges to get to the Turkish border. It was not safe in the Iraq anymore’.
Yazidism is a complex ancient religion, linked to Zoroastrianism and passed through generations via oral tradition. Misunderstood and understudied among Christians and Muslims, Yazidis are frequently considered ‘heathens’ and ‘devil worshippers’, because their mythology talks of one God and his angels, created specifically for the purpose to manage earthly affairs. The most famous of them is the Peacock Angel Melek Ta’us, who, according to the legend, refused to bow before Adam against God’s order, stating that only One God deserves his devotion, not a man made of dust. Compared with similar stories in Islam and Christianity, the legend reminds of no other but mythical Satan who was banished from the sky for his pride. When I tried to ask our guide more about the religion, and whether they are allowed to worship here, in the camp, I could not really get a coherent response. It seems that most Yazidis are keeping their faith to themselves, and do not speak about it much with someone outside the community. This voluntary religious and ideological isolation of Yazidis is another reason why even back in Iraq they lived apart from the rest of the population: marriages with representatives of other communities are frowned upon in Yazidi settlements.
When they first came here, they were promised a 2-month temporary stay in Fidanlik park, until some solution would be found for placement and legalisation of the initial 4,000 people who had escaped massacres and navigated dangerous mountain passes. The tents are lined up in the northern end of Fidanlik Park, while the southern part of it is occupied by a playground for children and picnic spots – something the park was used for before it was turned into a refugee camp.
The Disaster and Emergency Management Presidency of Turkey (AFAD) has done its job, erecting a whole tented settlement in Fidanlik park, complete with a kitchen and bathroom facilities, plus constant food and power supply.
‘Last week some journalists from Germany came, but they were not allowed inside’, our guide continues. The guards had told us the same: only if you get a written permission from the municipality of Diyarbakir. Otherwise, no entry. ‘We are supported by the Kurdish people, and I thinkt he Turkish government thinks we all have ties with PKK. This is why they do not help us. And because of our religion, nobody cares.’ Most Yazidis speak Kurmanji (Kurdish) as their first language and are ethnic Kurds.
Amin, a young man, is a qualified nurse and a designated doctor at the camp. For any medical emergency, the refugees can call an ambulance, but they all must pay their own medical expenses, while having no opportunity to earn money. 2 people have died in the camp so far, 6 are very sick, but even when brought to Diyarbakir they do not get all necessary medical assistance.
Shirin Ismail, from Sinjar, is a 40-year-old mother of 11 children, suffering of heart disease and high blood pressure. Most of her family is in Iraqi Kurdistan, and back at home she had an opportunity to treat the illness, discovered just 5 months prior to the day they had to escape from Iraq. Here, each scan or medical test costs the family around $1,000, and living in a cold tent does not help Shirin’s condition.
8-year-old Ghazal has a kidney problem, and an operation would cost the family up to $20,000. In another tent, little Tahsin Hamza, aged a bit older than 14 months, suffers from a birth defect in his leg. After one surgery the condition got worse, and a new surgery would cost the family another $10,000, not to mention that a cold tent in the park is not a suitable bed for a recovering child.
‘You are asking what happens to the sick here? Well, it is simple: they die,’ Amin explains.
’There is medicine coming in from some international NGOs, but we don’t get to see half of it. Between the delivery point and our camp, somebody steals the meds, and we never seem to have enough. I am sure they just keep half of the supply and sell it,’ the person in charge of the medicine tells us.
They just hope things will get better. Some of the people still cradle hope of returning home, to a peaceful Iraq they knew. Some of them are waiting for invitations to Europe or overseas, from their relatives and friends. Some simply do not have a slightest idea about the future. It is hard to be a child refugee, with scarce to no chance of getting a proper education, healthcare, or family relations. However, children seem to be the least preoccupied inhabitants of the Fidanlik Park refugee camp. It is probably the fact that they do not fully realise the gravity of their situation that makes them seem carefree, having forgotten all the horrors their families had to endure on their way to Turkey. Those memories might be suppressed, but they will most likely stay with them for the years to come. Fidanlik Park has swings and merry-go-rounds, a basketball court and plenty of space to play, and while parents are occupied with washing, cooking and worrying about the future, they do not have to worry about their children – until a medical issue comes up, of course.
We are invited for a quick dinner in one of the tents. People who by definition are in no position to be generous hosts, ask us to join them in one of the tents for delicious bread and a spicy meal, like they would have done should we ever visit them in Iraq. Old habits die hard, and if the food is sufficient and stories are flowing, we should never stop eating and talking.
‘I hope you will tell somebody what’s going on here,’ someone touches my hand. ’Then one day we will be able to go home.’