Watching hundreds of orphans roam desolate border camps ‘with no one to care for them,’ one man decides to take action

Hundreds of orphaned children wander among the collection of makeshift camps that dot the Syrian-Turkish border, looking for food and shelter.

They are among the 60,000 displaced Syrians living in the Atma settlement, a group of 54 informal camps situated along the border between northern Idlib province and Turkey.

These children face the problems that plague all Atma residents—overcrowding, a crude sewage system, water shortages, infrequent aid deliveries and disease—but they do it alone.

Last October, displaced residents in Atma, including Mohammed Faraj, became tired of watching unmoored children roam the muddy roads between the tents.

Something, he tells Syria Direct’s Alaa Nasser, had to be done.

Faraj and other residents raised $15,000 to set up an orphanage, which he says is the only one in al-Karama, a sub-camp in the Atma settlement.

The former car salesman, who fled to in Atma in 2012 after his family’s house in Kafr Zeita was bombed, says he was able to save up money through a job as a construction worker in the encampment and by borrowing funds from friends.

The orphanage, which shelters 100 children, is entirely funded and run by camp residents, says Faraj. 

Lacking resources and any form of support from humanitarian organizations, the volunteers can’t care for the estimated 600 other orphans dispersed in al-Karama, says Faraj.

"There are still many homeless children who are wandering around the camp, but we can’t help them.”

Q: Why did you decide to set up an orphanage?

I decided to create this orphanage because of the vast numbers of orphans in northern Syria who have lost their families to the war. There are around 3,000 orphans dispersed throughout the border camps who aren’t being supported or cared for by any organization. Of these children, 700 are in al-Karama alone.

A group of residents and I volunteered to help these children based on our belief that we must offer everything we have to ensure that these children have a future. It’s our duty to honor the sacrifices of the martyrs who have died during this war and make certain that they weren’t in vain.

The appearance of some of these children is heartbreaking. They wander among the tents in the camp without a shelter. They’ve been denied everything, including the warm embrace of someone to comfort them. This is what the regime does. They leave behind a generation entirely uneducated.

Q: How many children do you care for? Are there other orphanages nearby?

There are about 100 children between the ages of four and 10 who live at the orphanage. They’re from different villages and provinces in Syria, and all have lost their families.

This is the only orphanage in the Atma camps. The closest orphanage is 20km southeast, in a-Dana. It was founded four years ago.

Q: When and how did you establish the orphanage? How did you decide which children would stay there?

In the beginning, several interested volunteers and I walked around al-Karama, looking for orphans to take under our wing. Residents helped us identify children who were alone. We didn’t have any requirements or a registration list; we just focused on gathering as many children as we could.

We found an old building, and pooled money from our personal savings to renovate it. I also borrowed money from friends. The orphanage includes a kitchen, courtyard and four large rooms. Two of the rooms are for the children to sleep at night—they sleep next to each other, on top of floor mats arranged in rows. The other two rooms are for teachers to conduct classes and activities.

We welcomed the first orphan on October 1, 2016, and kept the orphanage doors open until November 15, 2016. After that, even though we were overwhelmed with requests, we couldn’t accept any more children. We don’t have the means to support them—we lack funding and the facility isn’t large enough.

Children still come to us looking for a home, but we have to turn them away.

Q: Describe an average day at the orphanage. Which services do you provide for the children?

The orphans live a normal life here. They eat breakfast at 7am and then go to classes and participate in activities organized by the volunteers, who are also teachers inside al-Karama.

They learn math, reading and writing in accordance with the Coalition curriculum. They also read the Quran and pray at the appropriate times.

[Ed.: In 2012, the National Syrian Coalition developed an altered version of the Syrian national curriculum to be taught in opposition territory.]

There are 18 female volunteers, including teachers, nurses and guards.

In addition to running leisure activities, the volunteers listen to the children and talk to them about their lives. We treat the kids as our own children in an attempt to compensate for their loss.

There is also a group of women who cook for the children three meals a day.

Q: How are the children doing now? Do you think this orphanage has helped them in a positive way?

Living here has definitely impacted the children. Their lives, which were in disarray, have structure now. We also try to make them feel like this place is their real home.

Q: Do the stories of any particular children stand out to you?

Yes. So many children, actually, since I spend most of my time with them. I sit with them and listen to what’s on their minds. Some children still remember the details of how they lost their families.

One nine-year-old boy, Mohammed, saw the bodies of his parents and siblings with his own eyes. He had left his home in east Aleppo to buy cake from a market. While he was gone, a cursed plane bombed his house, killing his entire family. Mohammed returned home to find that the building had collapsed on top of his family. He insisted on staying with the rescue team until they pulled out the bodies. After that, he left for Atma alongside another family that was fleeing Aleppo.

There’s another boy from Douma, who’s six years old. He witnessed his father’s death. After his mother was detained, he was all alone. He came to Atma with a family friend.

We try to help the kids forget the bitter pain that they have lived and felt. We try to ease their heartache, and assuage their fears of bombing and loss that continually haunt them.

Q: Where are you getting the money to run this orphanage?

Our savings. We don’t have any sponsors or organizations that have donated to the orphanage.

Many parties have come to the orphanage to take pictures of the children. We’ve heard many promises but haven’t seen tangible results. I’m reaching out to humanitarian organizations to support us in taking care of these forgotten children who reside in the border camps.

There are still many homeless children who are wandering around the camp. But we can’t help them because we don’t have the resources to do so.

I’m caught between a rock and a hard place. Lately I’ve been cutting food and expenses for my own family in order to afford running the camp. I’m responsible for my wife and four children in addition to my sister and her five children.

I don’t want the children at the orphanage to be in want of anything. But at the same time, I’m drowning in debt. I’ve borrowed $8,000 over the past few months in order to guarantee that the orphans have something to eat and drink.

I’m worried that if I don’t receive funding, I’ll have to close the camp and these children will have to return to the streets.

Alaa Nassar

Alaa was forced to flee Damascus with her family because of the pressure from the Syrian regime in 2013. She was a student of Arabic Language & Literature at the University of Damascus. She came to Syria Direct because she hopes to find a new direction in her life and to show the world what is happening in her country.

Jessica Page, Reporter/Translator

Jessica was a 2013-2014 Georgetown University Qatar Scholarship Program fellow in Doha, Qatar. She received her BA in both Arabic and International & Area Studies from Washington University in St. Louis. She has worked and studied in Jordan, Oman, and Qatar.