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The Hope to Return (Episode 2): Like home in the desert

Four years ago, Khedr was displaced with his wife and daughter to Washokani camp, on the outskirts of Hasakah city. Adjusting to life in a tent has been difficult, but despite opportunities to seek refuge abroad, Khedr refuses to leave. He feels like he would be giving up on his right to return home one day.

24 July 2023

Four years ago, Khedr was displaced with his wife and daughter to Washokani camp, on the outskirts of Hasakah city. Adjusting to life in a tent has been difficult, but despite opportunities to seek refuge abroad, Khedr refuses to leave. He feels like he would be giving up on his right to return home one day.

This is the second 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.




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 2: Like home in the desert

KHEDR KHABOUR: This tent is a bedroom, a sitting room, a kitchen, all at once. For guests, for washing. It’s very hard for us. We’ve been here for four years….We’ve been through a lot.

MAUVAIS: Khedr Khabour lives in Washokani camp, in the countryside of Hasakah, a city in northeastern Syria.

In 2019, he was displaced from his house in the countryside of Ras al-Ain by Operation Peace Spring, a Turkish military offensive in which Turkish-backed armed groups seized territories held by the Syrian Democratic Forces along Syria’s northern border.


KHABOUR: We left Ras al-Ain as the Turkish attack began. We left immediately. We were afraid of the military groups that entered the area. We couldn’t stay there because we are Yazidis. We were scared we would be massacred. There have been 74 genocides against us in Yazidi history. Because of this history, we were afraid and we left our homes.

MAUVAIS: Yazidis are one of the most ancient religious communities in Syria and Iraq. They speak Kurdish and practice the Yazidi faith, an ancient monotheistic religion that is little understood by outsiders.

Throughout their history, Yazidis have been persecuted by a variety of groups. Most recently, from 2014 to 2018 the so-called Islamic State carried out a genocide against Yazidis, both in their historic home in Iraq’s Sinjar mountains and in neighboring Syria.

In 2019, with the latest killings fresh in his mind, Khedr couldn’t take any chances. He immediately decided to flee when the bombing of Ras al-Ain began, not knowing who would show up in his village, or what they would do to his family.

Like thousands of others, Khedr and his family headed south, away from the fighting. He headed in the direction of Hasakah, a city in northeastern Syria controlled by the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria, a de facto government formed by a coalition of Kurdish, Assyrian and Arab parties.

KHABOUR: We moved near the town of Zirgan. We stayed there for three or four nights, but the situation got worse. People were killed, and the factions started to bomb us indiscriminately, hitting families and civilians. So we left again, for Tal Tamar. We stayed there for four months, but then more attacks came from the direction of the international highway—the M4. So we left again, for Hasakah. Then the Kurdish Red Crescent, Autonomous Administration and some legal organizations created this camp and set up tents. We moved in.

MAUVAIS: For nearly four years, Khedr has lived in Washokani camp with his wife and daughter.


KHABOUR: When we first came to the camp, I looked around and thought: What brought us here? Is it possible we’ll stay in this tent for a long time? I couldn’t see the tent as a home. Back home, we had a house—four walls, doors that closed and a roof above our heads. All made of concrete. I found it very difficult.

MAUVAIS: The camp was established in November 2019 on the western outskirts of the city of Hasakah, in northeastern Syria.

The name Washokani was chosen to commemorate the history of those who live here. Ras al-Ain is the Arabic name for the town they fled, but in Kurdish it is called “Sere Kaniye” or “Washo Kani.”


MAUVAIS: The camp’s early days were chaotic. Remember, it was the middle of a military offensive. Nobody knew how far the bombing would reach. Or where the fighting would stop.

TV news reports from November 2019 show a plain desert, where the first tents had just been pitched. The landscape is flat, even, with no vegetation. In these initial reports, we see the first families moving into the camp. Women carrying young children crowd around pickup trucks where local NGOs distribute warm clothes and blankets.

It was the beginning of winter, the first of many that these families would spend in a tent.

ANISA MALEK: The camp was created in the desert, the ground is rocky and compact. When it was established, we had a lot of trouble removing the stones. It took a long time to get the area ready. People’s situation was difficult in the beginning, because the camp took shape a bit informally.

MAUVAIS: Anisa Malek, co-head of the Autonomous Administration-affiliated Camp Administration, speaks from her office in a caravan at the camp’s entrance. Malek was herself displaced from Ras al-Ain and she has lived in the camp since it was created. She now helps run it.

Over the past four years, Washokani has expanded to reach the size of a small town. Today, the camp is home to around 16,500 people. Most of them are children, who make up 60 percent of its population.

MALEK: This camp is open. It’s as if you were living in a normal town. People can come and go as they please. It’s not like many other camps, where there’s stricter security. It’s as if you were living in Ras al-Ain city but the geography has changed and the buildings are different. But we do what we can to make people’s lives easier. There aren’t many restrictions.

MAUVAIS: Children go to school inside the camp, and there are several clinics that provide basic health services and medicine to residents. There’s even a market. Hasakah city is very close by, so people can easily go there.

But despite these efforts to preserve normalcy, daily life is hardly normal. For one thing, camp life is constantly noisy.

Thousands of people are crammed together in a small space. Trucks drive by constantly, bringing water in or taking sewage out. Here and there, small generators run, powering clinics, schools, water pumps or shops.

Tarp is hardly soundproof, so you can hear everything your neighbors do and say. All around, babies cry and children shout and play.


MAUVAIS: Khedr’s home for the past four years has been a tent the size of a small room, shaped like an upside-down boat. The walls are made of thick white and blue tarp, and there’s a small front door that doesn’t lock. There are no windows, just small openings in the walls. A row of identical tents hide it from the main road.


KHABOUR: This tent is a bedroom, a sitting room, a kitchen, all at once. For guests, for washing. It’s very difficult for us. We’ve been here for four years….We’ve been through a lot.

MAUVAIS: The inside of Khedr’s tent looks like a very small and very crowded living room. The walls are decorated with dozens of colorful drawings made by Nevin, Khedr’s youngest daughter. Most of them feature small houses, trees and gardens.

A thick carpet covers the floor. There are cupboards and mattresses stacked in the back. The family lays them out every night on the floor to turn the sitting room into a bedroom.

There’s very little furniture inside the room, but at the entrance, there’s a small kitchen with shelves. This is where the family keeps food and utensils. It’s the only part of the tent that has a hard concrete floor. Khedr put it in to keep insects out. There’s no electricity, but Khedr has a small rechargeable fan to keep the tent cool in the 40-degree Celsius summer heat.

KHABOUR: I bought a water tank for my tent. I saw that there were a lot of people using the same tanks, which created a bit of tension, so I bought one for myself.

MAUVAIS: On the day we visit Khedr, he is alone. His wife and youngest daughter Nevin are visiting relatives in the nearby autonomous Kurdish region of Iraq, where his other children live. All of his siblings have emigrated to Europe.

Khedr is one of the last members of the family still in Syria, but he doesn’t want to leave. He feels that leaving the country would be like giving up on the hope of returning to his native village.


KHABOUR: If it was up to my family, I would be abroad too. They tell me: Come over Khedr, the house is gone. If the situation improves and we can go back, the land will still be there.

MAUVAIS: Since moving to Washokani, Khedr has tried to make himself at home, but it gets harder over time.

At first, Khedr thought he would only stay for a few weeks, maybe months. He was determined to go back home, to his olive trees and wheat fields. His mind was fixed on one goal: returning.

It was only a year or so ago that Khedr started planting a garden around his tent. But even that garden has become a reminder of all he has lost.


KHABOUR: I planted two pine trees, two cypresses and a shade tree. Two roses. My daughter Nevin told me, ‘Dad, bring us flowers.’ [VOICE BREAKS] She told me, ‘Dad, we had flowers at home. We had trees, and we had flowers. Let’s plant something here, too.’


MAUVAIS: Khedr is not the only one in Washokani who has tried to recreate a piece of his life back home here in the camp.

Many of the families here originally come from villages in the countryside. There, it was common for people to grow a small garden with some herbs, some livestock and fresh vegetables. But in the camp, there’s no real space for a garden. The soil is sandy and rocky, and there isn’t enough water for trees.

For these families, losing that connection with nature, and their bond to the land, is a heavy blow. And rebuilding their lives in these harsh conditions is no small challenge.


MAUVAIS: In the next episodes, we will travel back in time to October 2019 and Operation Peace Spring. We will hear about the journey of Amina, who we met in the last episode, and Khedr, and why Amina’s family failed to find a stable refuge while Khedr entered the camp.

We will also investigate what happened to their former homes, and what is stopping them from going back.


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 of Yekpar Group, a group of musicians from Ras al Ain now displaced to Qamishli in northeast Syria.

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

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