Designed as a temporary refuge for those displaced by Operation Peace Spring, Washokani camp is turning into a small town as years pass and residents cannot return home. But families still live in aging tents, not allowed to build more comfortable houses inside the camp. What is the future of the camp and its residents, torn between the hope to return and the wish to build a slightly better life in displacement?
This is the fifth 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 Alicia Medina (Zahra), Fabienne Rorke (Anisa Malek), George Henton (Fayrushah Ramadan), Mateo Nelson (Khedr Khabour) and Aaron Weintraub (Manhal al-Khaled). Narration for the Arabic version of this series was translated from the original English by Fatima Ashour.
(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 5: The future of the camps
(AUDIO FROM THE MAIN ROAD IN WASHOKANI CAMP)
MAUVAIS: April 5, 2023. Nearly four years after it was created, Washokani camp is turning into a small town. It is filled with neat rows of tents, shops, schools and several clinics.
In what was once empty desert, compact sand roads have been traced and ditches dug to carry away waste water. Every day, a flurry of rusty trucks drive through the camp, filling large red water tanks at the entrance of alleys. Here and there, fine dust rises from the sandy ground. The sky, filled with this dust, is hazy but bright.
(WATER RUNNING IN A DITCH IN WASHOKANI)
MAUVAIS: White tents, beige ground and the light gray sky trace the contours of the camp. But here and there, brown facades and low-lying walls of mud brick peek out from the sea of white.
Walking deeper into the camp, these constructions become more frequent. They look like the mud houses many families build for themselves in the Hasakah countryside.
Turning the corner of a narrow street, we enter one of these structures.
(ZAHRA SHOWS REPORTERS AROUND INSIDE)
MAUVAIS: Zahra, who we’ve met in previous episodes, lives in a tent with her husband and seven children.
ZAHRA: The first winter, we stayed in a tent. Everything was in the same room: Our stuff, the gas stove, the bathroom, our beds….It was stuffed. We are nine people—that tent wasn’t enough. So we went to fetch some clay, some stones from outside the camp, and with them we slowly made more space. Just somewhere to put the stove, our clothes. That’s it. This is our tent.
MAUVAIS: But at the entrance of their tent, they’ve built a small kitchen out of mud bricks. Zahra likes to sit there during the day, shielded from the heat by the fresh walls.
The family has built another room next door, where she runs a small vegetable shop. They’ve also put up a wooden fence all around the tent, for privacy.
ZAHRA: We put up a curtain, for when someone wants to wash up. This is the kitchen. And we sleep inside.
MAUVAIS: Zahra’s improvements to her temporary home are against the rules of the camp. Residents are not allowed to build, even out of mud, although it is a material that is easily removed. In Washokani, mud houses are considered a form of permanent settlement that go against the intended temporary nature of the camp.
But a growing number of families are still trying to improve their homes. Some build enclosure walls to have more privacy. Others coat their tents with mud to improve insulation and keep it cooler inside during the hot summer. Others are making small rooms, kitchens, and private showers, or joining multiple tents together.
ZAHRA: They told us it wasn’t allowed. It’s forbidden. Okay, but what about families like us, who live with nine people in one tent, and share a single room with the children, cooking and washing themselves in that room? We asked for help from the camp administration. If you can’t build a kitchen for every tent, then okay, let us build what we need ourselves.
MAUVAIS: The local authorities don’t see it this way. The question of building in Washokani camp is politically contentious, because it is related to the future of the camp’s displaced communities.
ANISA MALEK: This is Anisa Malek, the co-chair of the Camp Administration. Malek was herself displaced from Ras al-Ain in 2019, and also lives in Washokani. For her, any steps towards turning the camp into a more permanent town would send the wrong political signal.
MALEK: A person who is really displaced doesn’t build a house. That person lives on the hope to return home one day. Real displaced people, even if they try to live comfortably in the camp, they are all hoping to return today or tomorrow.
MAUVAIS: We heard this discourse, which pits so-called “real” displaced people against others, once more when we visited the Autonomous Administration’s Directorate of Humanitarian and IDP Affairs, the agency responsible for the camps.
FEYRUSHAH RAMADAN: Displaced people in the Jazira region, especially from Serekaniye, Tel Abyad and Afrin, they don’t want mud houses. They don’t want more land. They want their land: They want to go back to their cities and villages. This is what’s best, and what everyone prefers.
MAUVAIS: That’s Feyrushah Ramadan, the co-chair of the directorate.
RAMADAN: We discussed the idea of building inside the camp recently. It’s not a good thing. It’s a bad idea for the camp to turn into mud houses, or even cement and concrete houses. The camp is called a camp for a reason.
MAUVAIS: But in other Autonomous Administration-run displacement camps, like Abu Khashab, which is home to a predominantly Arab population displaced from the countryside of Deir e-Zor province, the residents have been allowed to build.
Today, most of the tents in Abu Khashab have been replaced by small mud houses, which are better adapted to the harsh weather conditions of the desert.
This difference in treatment between the two camps is significant. In one camp, mud buildings are seen as a temporary solution to the discomfort of daily life. In the other, they are seen as a dangerous attempt to entrench the displacement of camp residents.
While life in the tents is hard, many in Washokani share this view. Khedr, who we met in previous episodes, is one of them. He is set on returning to his native village near Ras al-Ain, and has rejected his family’s pleas to start a new life abroad. He does not want to build a more permanent life in the camp.
KHEDR KHABOUR: After a while, people started building rooms. I told them at the time that I didn’t understand why they were doing that. Are we going to stay here? I told them: This isn’t our home. Our goal is to go back.
Personally, I don’t want to build anything here. I could make one or two rooms around the tent, but this is not my house. We were pushed off our lands. We are still living in northern Syria, but our land is in Ras al-Ain, in occupied territory. We want to return.
MAUVAIS: But does hoping to return mean displaced people are not allowed to try to build a better life for themselves, even if they see their stay as temporary?
Some, like Zahra, would disagree.
ZAHRA: We’ve been living like this for four years now. My family and other families are the same. It’s difficult. It’s not a life. If I want to talk to my daughter, the neighbors hear us. If I want to talk to my husband, the neighbors hear us too. If I want to go to the bathroom, everyone in the camp sees me. Having my own house would be better, of course.
MAUVAIS: Do people who make new homes abroad as refugees, or wherever they’ve been displaced to, somehow lose their right to return?
These are difficult questions that have fueled tensions in the recent history of Syria, and of the Middle East. What is happening in Washokani feels like an echo of history.
(ARCHIVAL AUDIO: PEOPLE WALKING)
MAUVAIS: In 1948, around one million Palestinians were chased off their land—expelled and displaced during the war that led to the creation of the modern state of Israel. Entire communities were depopulated, and word of massacres committed by Jewish extremist groups sent hundreds of thousands on the run.
Palestinians call this the Nakba, the catastrophe.
Thousands of Palestinians ended up in Syria and other neighboring countries. Like Khedr and Amina, they hoped to return to their land quickly, and did not want to build a future in exile.
(ARCHIVAL AUDIO: VOICES OF A BABY AND YOUNG CHILDREN)
MAUVAIS: But years passed, and then decades, and the Palestinians could not go back. Children were born and raised in the camps. In Lebanon, Jordan and Syria, tents bubbled into houses and apartment buildings, and then into neighborhoods and towns.
One example is the Yarmouk camp in Damascus, established in 1957. It eventually obtained the status of a formal municipality, managed independently by its residents.
The history of this camp, which was meant to be temporary but became permanent, is a reminder that forced displacement often results in permanent demographic changes. But the history of Yarmouk is complex, and not quite the same as today’s displacement camps in northeastern Syria.
Manhal al-Khaled, a Syrian lawyer specialized in housing and property rights, explains.
MANHAL AL-KHALED: The Yarmouk camp was built on private or rented land, most of which was formally seized and then distributed amongst the Palestinian refugees by the Syrian government. The refugees didn’t get them informally or by squatting. These places were given to Palestinian refugees until they could return home, but the owner of the land remained the Syrian state.
But in northern Syria, the land on which the camps were built was not bought or rented, but mostly provided by the local councils, whether from public property or from lands that were confiscated from private owners under political pretexts.
MAUVAIS: In other words, the distribution of land to Palestinian refugees in Yarmouk camp was organized by the Syrian government early on, with the idea that refugees could build their own homes on land loaned by the state, which would remain its final owner.
In northern Syria, there’s no similar plan to allocate land to displaced people for a long period of time. Even if people like Zahra and Khedr stay in the camps for decades, they still will have no legal right to build houses there or take possession of the land.
Still, the case of the Yarmouk camp is a prime example of how mass displacement can result in the creation of new communities over time.
And it’s not only Yarmouk. Over the past century and a half, Syrian history has been deeply shaped by similar mass displacements, including the arrival of hundreds of thousands of Assyrian and Christian Armenian survivors of genocides committed by the Ottoman Empire.
The fear that displacement during the war will lead to permanent demographic changes is a source of concern for many in Syria today, including for the de facto authorities in the northeast.
RAMADAN: Living conditions became very difficult, and at the same time, after four years of course, the hope of returning has decreased. The more time passes, the more difficult it is to go back.
MAUVAIS: Questions about the near future of the displacement camps like Washokani and Serekaniye are tied to these concerns.
Will the camps continue to expand to welcome those, like Amina, who have been left homeless by war? Or will their residents be pressured to leave in the coming years, as international funding dwindles?
Will the tents turn into houses and the camps into formal towns, as was the case for many Palestinian refugee camps in the region? Or will families be able to return home?
Only time will tell. In the meantime, millions of Syrians are stranded in limbo, unable to build a new life here and clinging to the hope to return home.
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.