A voice from Kurdistan


Written by Alberto Sanna from Italy

January 2016

From December 16th to 26th a workcamp organized by SCI Italy, in collaboration with “Genclik ve degisim, Youth and Change Association”, was held in the refugee camp of Diyarbakir, Turkish Kurdistan. Within the area, run by the Kurdish municipalities, there are about 4,000 refugees, 1,500 of whom are children. Most part of them are Yazidi, that fled from Mount Sinjar after the attack of ISIL.

“It’s evening, and after a 5 hour flight I land in Diyarbakir. Why have I come here, to Turkish Kurdistan? I knew I would work in the camp with other volunteers, along with Yazidi refugees that fled from Mount Sinjar. I also knew that in the camp that there were about 4,000 refugees, 1,500 of whom are children. What I did not know was the humanity I would find there. Let’s start explaining it!

The activities are organized on the first day of the camp, but every evening we discuss and decide the details about what to do the next day. We spend the first day getting to know the place, the people, the guests and the other local volunteers. After that we hesitantly start forming the first friendships with the younger children and then with all the others.

According to the needs expressed by teachers and kids, English lessons would be very important. So every morning, during the camp, we hold two English classes, with two pairs of volunteers in each classroom, one composed by children under 8 years and the other with children up to 12/13 years old.

At lunchtime, the children return to the tents and we eat in the meadow, a hundred meters from the school’s container. Lunchtime is a moment for sharing experiences among the volunteers. After the break, the activities start again, especially outdoors and we organize games for the kids. They are simple games, such as red light/green light, hide and seek or a sack race.

From time to time we have the opportunity to meet the leaders of the community and talk with them in English, thanks to the translation of Umut, the coordinator of the camp, and other local volunteers. We ask them why they are there, how they feel about the situation, what they are afraid of, who or what they are escaping from and what are the hopes and dreams they are still chasing. Even if we can imagine most of the answers, when a man or a woman speaks about it of it in front of you, it’s really touching.
Other afternoons we organize the cleaning of the camp. Half for fun and half seriously, we go around collecting paper and plastic waste. The camp never seemed to be particularly dirty, except for some quite hidden places. However I think it can be considered much cleaner than any outskirts of Naples, Milan or Rome. I had a further confirmation of this when I later learned that the Kurdish municipality which manages the waste collection had considered this initiative. If there was a need to clean up, they said, they would send their workers to do so! I was pleased, because there was no pen-pusher arrogance on that note, just a commendable sense of community and a pinch of pride. The camp was actually not dirty, they didn’t wait for foreign volunteers to make a good impression.

In two days we cleaned, whitewashed and painted the exterior walls of a school building together with the children. Perhaps they expected, since it was an Italian to manage it all (me!), that the result would be a Kurdish Sistine Chapel!

Well, the kids took control and obviously the school wall became a mega white sheet for sketches. Beautiful! In the activities we try to involve everyone, but certainly children and teenagers were the most active. Many of their families invited us in their tents for tea.

In the evening, at dusk, we returned to the city with our minibus. Of course, the ease of movement offered by the bus allowed us to make good use of the few hours of light available in the weeks of mid-December, in addition to avoid passing those areas of the city that could be crossed by demonstrations or other critical events.

The bus came to pick us up in the morning, just under the 8-storey building where we slept, and took us right into the camp, about 20 km from the city.

The building is in an area close to Sur (200/300 meters), a district subject to a curfew from the Turkish army. But we don’t have any problems, neither finding ourselves in the midst of trouble, even from a distance.

It’s only during the evening and night that we can clearly hear the shots of AK-47 rifles and some mortars. The first night you hear them you are not happy, the second night t you pay very little attention to it, and then you don’t notice it anymore. Except, sometimes, you halt at a shot thinking maybe a man just died.

The schedule is decided together: we share the cooking and the washing duties, often the local volunteers take care of this. One of them is always present, Hussein, but there are also others to help us. Umut, Hussein and other local volunteers work, sleep and eat with us in the guesthouse of the local association.
During the camp we have the opportunity to meet Umut’s father, who host us all in his house for tea. He tells us about the years he spent in Turkish prisons, because of his fight against the oppression. We also meet another man who has been helping refugees and Kurdish militants for years, to gain acceptance in Turkish medical centers for health care.

What remains today is the desire to better understand and return.

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