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The Hope to Return (Episode 1): The mill

Amina al-Fares lives with her family of 11 in an abandoned mill in the countryside of Tal Tamar, in Syria’s northeastern Hasakah province. The family was displaced from their home near Ras al-Ain in 2019, and lived in the open for many months until they found this place. But they now risk being expelled by its owner.


17 July 2023

Amina al-Fares lives with her family of 11 in an abandoned mill in the countryside of Tal Tamar, in Syria’s northeastern Hasakah province. The family was displaced from their home near Ras al-Ain in 2019, and lived in the open for many months until they found this place. But they now risk being expelled by its owner.

This is the first episode of “The Hope to Return,” a podcast series by Syria Direct that follows the stories of three families displaced in 2019 by Turkey’s Operation Peace Spring.

Four years later, tens of thousands of Syrians are still stranded in displacement camps and makeshift shelters across the northeast, unable to return, their houses destroyed, looted or occupied, and their land sometimes confiscated. As the years stretch on, they are torn between the hope to return home and the need to build a new life in displacement.

“The Hope to Return” was produced by Lyse Mauvais with help from Solin Muhammad Amin and Syria Direct’s editorial team, including Mateo Nelson, Ammar Hamou and Natacha Danon. Illustrations are by Rami Khoury. The soundtrack is “Maldoc” by Little Rock. Instrumental transitions are performed by Kawa Kale from Yekpar, a group of Kurdish musicians displaced from Ras al-Ain. 

This episode is narrated in English by Lyse Mauvais and in Arabic by Omar Nour, with dubbing in English by Natacha Danon (Amina al-Fares) and Isabel Morgan (Gulistan Awsu). Narration for the Arabic version of this series was translated from the original English by Fatima Ashour.

TRANSCRIPT 

(MUSIC) 

(INTRO AUDIO: FIVE VOICES SPEAKING IN ARABIC)

LYSE MAUVAIS: Tens of thousands of Syrians are stranded in displacement camps in northeastern Syria, and thousands more live in makeshift shelters and abandoned buildings. Their houses back home have been destroyed, looted, or occupied. Their future looks uncertain. 

This podcast follows three families torn between the hope to return and the need to build a new life in displacement.

This is “The Hope to Return,” a podcast by Syria Direct. 

Episode 1: The mill

(AUDIO FROM TAL MASAS: BIRDS, FOOTSTEPS)

MAUVAIS: Tal Masas, in the countryside of Tal Tamar, northeastern Syria. April 2023.

(AMINA AL-FARES SPEAKING IN ARABIC)

MAUVAIS: Amina al-Fares, 26, comes from Derdara, a village in the countryside of Ras al-Ain, at the border between Turkey and Syria. 

But for the past two years, Amina has lived in this abandoned mill on the outskirts of Tal Tamar, 35 kilometers south of her home.

The mill sits on the banks of the Khabour River. In the spring, it’s surrounded by wheat fields and wild grass. It’s a quiet place, a few hundred meters off the main road that connects Tal Tamar and Hasakah city.

(MUSIC, BABY’S VOICE AND CHICKENS)

AMINA AL-FARES: Living here isn’t good. There’s dust, insects, there’s no water, no electricity, there are snakes and scorpions. We’re scared, of course, but we have nowhere else to go. In the summer we worry about insects, snakes and scorpions, they get everywhere. We stay constantly beside the baby, we are scared he’ll get bitten. 

MAUVAIS: Amina sleeps with her elderly parents, her three sisters and three brothers inside the main building of the mill. It’s a damaged building made of concrete. There were no windows when the family arrived, so they patched the holes with mud bricks. Next to the main building stands a destroyed hangar. The walls and roof are gone. Only the iron shell of the structure remains. One of Amina’s brothers sleeps there with his wife and their seven-month-old baby, Alaa.

AL-FARES: This was a hangar before, they probably kept chickens inside. After the war started, the people abandoned this mill. Now there’s just the walls left. I built this small room here. There’s no water, no electricity, nothing. No shower. We shower behind a curtain, I’ll show you now. We cook on an open fire, there’s no stove and no gas. What else could you ask for?

(WALKING SOUNDS)

We cook here, on this fire. We collect firewood in the nearby village. And for washing, we wash here, behind the curtain. We built this room with mud. When we want to shower, we pull the curtain in front.

(MUSIC)

MAUVAIS: Before moving to this abandoned mill, Amina lived in a real house: A home made of mud and hay bricks. Her family raised sheep and farmed a small plot of land near their house. In the garden, they had olive trees, pines and pomegranates. Amina would often sit there, doing housework. Her mom had a small oven where she baked her own bread.

It was a small farm, but over time, Amina’s parents gathered enough money to build another house for their children, made of concrete. They poured all their savings into that house. 

When it was built, Amina was in her early twenties. The new house was almost ready and she was hoping to get married. But in October 2019, her life took a drastic turn.

(CLIP OF VIDEO REPORT BY TRT WORLD: “This is Ras al-Ain, just across from the Turkey-Syria border….”)

MAUVAIS: On October 9, 2019, the Turkish air force bombed Syrian towns located near the border. Backed by Turkey, factions of the Syrian National Army, a coalition of armed Syrian opposition groups, swept into Ras al-Ain. Before then, the town was controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces: a military coalition of Kurdish, Arab and other parties.

(CLIP OF VIDEO REPORT BY TRT WORLD: “Turkey’s aim is to secure its border. It also wants to resettle some of the 3.5 million Syrian refugees it’s taken in over the eight years of Syria’s war. It says it won’t stop until its goals are reached.”

MAUVAIS: That night marked the beginning of Operation Peace Spring, a military offensive that would last until the end of November 2019. 

(MUSIC)

MAUVAIS: When the bombing began, thousands of people fled Ras al-Ain and the surrounding countryside to escape the violence. Many headed southeast. They found refuge in the city of Hasakah: in schools, empty buildings and offices.  

Some, like Amina’s family, slept out in the open. 

For almost a year after Operation Peace Spring, the family was homeless. They lived in the countryside. All they owned was a large iron bed that many Syrian families keep in their garden so they can sleep outside during hot summer nights.

AL-FARES: That year, we spent four months outdoors, sleeping in the open. There were no showers, no toilets. We had to wait until it was dark to wash ourselves.

MAUVAIS: More than 200,000 people were displaced by the offensive. Many thought the fighting would only last for a few days, that they would go back home after a few weeks. 

But as the conflict continued, many houses were destroyed, and going back seemed increasingly difficult. So the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria, the de-facto government that controls the Hasakah province, started to set up camps to host the displaced.

But many families did not go to the camps.

AL-FARES: We didn’t go to the camp at first because we kept hoping we’d go back home. But we didn’t go back.

MAUVAIS: Amina’s parents worried about protecting their children, three of whom have a disability.

Three of Amina’s siblings are deaf and do not speak, one of whom also has night blindness. The youngest member of the family, seven-month-old Alaa, was born with tongue-tie. Without surgery, he will have difficulty speaking when he grows up. 

For these reasons, Amina’s father wanted to avoid living too close to others.

AL-FARES: If we lived in the village, it wouldn’t work out for my sister. She doesn’t speak and doesn’t see. She can stand right in front of the house and shower there, where everyone will see her. 

Do you want to know why we chose to live far out of the village? Because it’s far from people. We worry about her. We worry that she will go out and something will happen to her while she’s going about her business. She doesn’t understand and she doesn’t see: how can we take care of her?

MAUVAIS: Weeks went by, then months, and the family was still homeless. Then, they found the abandoned mill. 

The mill sits between Tal Masas and Tal Maghas, two Assyrian villages. Assyrians are a Christian community who originally built the town of Tal Tamar and more than 30 villages along the Khabour River.

But since 2015, most of the 15,000 Assyrians who once lived here emigrated, because they were targeted by the so-called Islamic State. Today, only a few Assyrian families are left in each village. 

Since 2019, displaced families have taken over many of the houses that were left empty. And, like Amina’s family, newcomers often moved in without the approval of the owner.

But one day this past winter, the owner of the mill turned up in Tal Tamas, asking for his property back.

AL-FARES: As soon as I see him turn on the road over there, I think: It’s over, he’s come to kick us out. The first time he came, he was kind. He told us he wanted to fix the mill and get it back to work, he wanted to hire workers, he wanted to set up a house for his sister. We couldn’t stop him. This is his investment, this is his land. But we asked him to give us time, at least until the summer. In summer, when the rain stops, we can stay in the countryside. We asked him to wait until winter is over. 

MAUVAIS: Since that day, Amina has been searching for a stable home. A place she could live in legally, with her family, in decent conditions. 

One obvious choice were the camps: There is Washokani camp nearby, which already hosts 16,500 people, and Serekaniye camp, home to 14,000. Most of the camp residents are people displaced from Ras al-Ain, like them. But the camps are full.

AL-FARES: For a year I’ve been trying to find a spot in the camp. They asked us why we didn’t come from the beginning. Now there’s no space left. There’s nothing for us.

We can’t do anything to postpone it. We’ve already asked the owner four or five times to give us more time. But it’s his right to take back the mill. Next time, he might try to kick us out by force. We don’t want that. We don’t want to be thrown out like this, in public. No. We will leave of our own will, we will leave with our heads high. Better than being forced out.

(WALKING SOUNDS)

MAUVAIS: The village where Amina grew up is so close that she can even see it from the top of the small hill that stands in front of the mill.

AL-FARES: Every week, we come here and we look. Two days ago they bombed our village. We are too far away to see which house was hit. But we see it all from here. 

(MUSIC)

MAUVAIS: Amina doesn’t know whether her house still stands. For two years, she’s struggled to make a home in the ruins of the mill, but she will soon be displaced again. And she’s not the only one.

GULISTAN AWSU: There are a lot of similar stories. When people were first displaced, many had already experienced strikes or attacks in the past but they had been able to go back to their homes. So many families were not expecting to settle in a camp, or to be displaced like this.

MAUVAIS: This is Gulistan Awsu, the co-chair of the Autonomous Administration’s Board of IDP and Refugee Affairs in Hasakah province.  

Gulistan and her colleague, Feyrushah Ramadan, met us at their office in the city of Qamishli in mid-April. They told us about the challenges their Administration faces in dealing with this humanitarian crisis. 

Since the residents of Washokani and Serekaniye camps are displaced inside Syria, they are not considered refugees by the United Nations and receive little international support.

Together, the two camps host more than 30,000 people displaced by Operation Peace Spring. And they are full. But anywhere between 7,000 to 23,000 people displaced by the offensive are thought to live outside the camps, often in makeshift shelters. It’s difficult to know just how many, because the displaced are scattered across a wide area. 

AWSU: There are families who rented houses in Hasakah at the beginning, thinking they would stay only for a few months. These people are also living in difficult conditions, even in the city. Many families can no longer afford to pay rent. 

At the same time, after four years, of course, the hope of returning home has decreased. The more time passes, the more difficult it is to go back.

(MUSIC)

MAUVAIS: Back home in Derdara, Amina shared a bedroom with her sisters. Her brothers slept in another one. She had some privacy, and earned a living by running a small clothes shop.

But stranded in Tal Masas, her life has changed completely. Even her dreams are different.

AL-FARES: I wanted to get married. I was engaged more than once, but never married. When someone talks about it, I feel like crying. I don’t want to get married, it’s too late now. Marriage is gone, it’s over

Here, we can’t do anything. There’s empty land all around but we can’t farm it. The owner doesn’t let us. It’s his land, his right. We take it day by day: if we get work that day, we work. If not, we stay put.

MAUVAIS: Sometimes, she works as a day laborer with nearby farmers. She leaves at dawn and spends the day planting seeds, weeding fields or harvesting crops. 

She’s paid around 1000 Syrian pounds per hour. In April 2023, one US dollar was worth roughly 7,700 Syrian pounds, which means Amina earns less than 15 US cents an hour. 

As little as it is, it is an income the family cannot do without.

AL-FARES: When I’m on my period, my belly hurts a lot. But if I get the opportunity to go to work that day, even if I’m sick, I go. I get out of the house. I can deal with it

MAUVAIS: Since there is no running water, they buy water tanks every four or five days from private water trucks that supply other displaced people in the area. A full water tank costs 6,000 Syrian pounds—six hours of working in the fields. 

To save this clean supply of water for drinking and cooking, Amina and her family use as much water as possible from the nearby Khabour River for washing and cleaning the house. It only flows in winter and is heavily polluted. 

AL-FARES: This water from the Khabour, it’s not clean. Villages upstream dump sewage in it. And there’s wastewater coming from the hill too. But what can we do?

And regarding us, the girls…we lack everything. Clothing: we don’t have many clothes like other people. Girls need privacy, they need to have their own clothes, they need…I mean there are a lot of things we’d like to have to make our life a bit more normal. We don’t have clothes, other than what we’re wearing now. We don’t have make-up. As girls, we feel like we should have all these things, you know?

(MUSIC) 

MAUVAIS: In the coming episodes, we will hear more of Amina’s story. We will meet others who, like her, cannot return home, and explore the reasons why.

The next episode takes us to Washokani camp, created in 2019 to host the families displaced by Operation Peace Spring.

(MUSIC)

MAUVAIS: This podcast series was written and produced by me, Lyse Mauvais, with help from Solin Muhammed Amin and Syria Direct’s editorial team. 

Instrumental music for the soundtrack is performed by Kawa Kale from Yekpar, a group of Kurdish musicians from Ras al-Ain who have been displaced to Qamishli, in northeast Syria. 

You can find this and the following episodes on our website, syriadirect.org, and on all major podcasting platforms. 

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