I don't know if it was the fact that he shares my grandmother’s maiden name, or if it was his insistence on wearing a well pressed suit to work at the refugee camp school every day that made me to talk to him. He introduced himself as ‘Ustaz’, or ‘Professor' Hallak. Before I knew it, I found myself chatting away with this primary school teacher from a village near war-torn Idlib.
“I never thought I would find myself living a refugee life. I was always aware that we had divisions and inequality in Syria and that we might one day find ourselves fighting each other, but I never imagined this life,” he told me, as we sat basking in the sun on a beautiful November day.
Ustaz Hallak lives in Oncupinar refugee camp in the town of Kilis in southeast Turkey. You would never be able to tell that this man, with his calm, dignified demeanour, was sharing a home, called a “container” by the residents of Oncupinar, with his wife, his son, his son’s wife, and his five grandchildren. That’s nine people living in 21 square meters divided into a kitchen, bathroom, and bedroom.
“I have had a heart operation and I have diabetes and my wife is asthmatic, and we are sleeping in the kitchen which is unhealthy for her.”
Children of War and Displacement
I wanted to know how Professor Hallak, with thirty five years of teaching experience, thought war and displacement is affecting his students.
“There is very big difference between the students here and the students in Syria. Back home, students were motivated to study because they wanted to get jobs. Here in Turkey, students can’t get a job. They don’t have any hope. They are hostile and they don't know how to talk to each other. You can hear seven and eight year-olds talk about terrorism and killing.”
Professor Hallak told me that it is not only war and displacement that have scarred them. It is also the daily conditions that they live in.
Educating the Children
The children, like the rest of the residents of this camp, live in containers that can house up 11,000 refugees. The camp is run by Turkey, with the help and donations of Saudi, Qatari, Kuwaiti and Emirati charities, and in collaboration with UN agencies.
“Living in a container is like living in the street. The container is so small that if parents need a break from their children, the only place they can send them to play is in the streets. So children are always in the streets and they learn street behaviour and language which they bring back to their families and their container. The street has become more powerful than us, and no matter what we teachers do to try and educate our children, we are unable to counter the war.”
Another 15,000 units are being built as we speak, a clear indication that despite the ongoing talks to end the war in Syria, no one expects the human exodus to end anytime soon.
Author: Zeina Awad