Evlin, a confident eight-year-old with a sweet but mischievous smile, leads a game with her school friends. They shriek and giggle with delight as they chase each other. Soon, their teacher calls, and they obediently form two lines and file into the classroom. The boys sit on one side and the girls on the other, Evlin in the front row. At the request of her teacher, she leads the class in a patriotic song about Rojava (western Kurdistan), sung in their native tongue, Kurmanji.
It may seem like an ordinary day at school with a bright young girl, except this classroom is in a refugee tent and Evlin and her classmates have all seen the horrors of war. Almost every child has a family member who has been killed by ISIS and many have seen someone they love shot down or beheaded in front of them.
I met Evlin in the Arin Mirxan refugee camp, on the outskirts of Suruc, in January 2015. She had been living in the camp for three months, forced to flee with her family after Islamic State extremists invaded their home, Kobane. Like most of the Syrian Kurds I have met, Evlin appeared to be fearless. When another kid teased her during playtime, she responded by throwing small rocks at him. In this way, the children resolve disputes in the camps on their own. It seems irrelevant to discourage a child from throwing rocks as bombs rain down on their homes just miles south.
After class, Evlin takes my hand and leads me to her tent, identifiable from the thousands of other identical tents by the large “14” painted next to the zip-up door.
She introduces me to her father and mother, Alladin and Neriz, and younger brothers, Hemud, 6, and baby Mustafa.
We remove our muddy boots at the door and Neriz prepares tea on the small portable stove they keep near the entrance. The tent is clean and organized. Mattresses line the edges and there is a blanket hanging as a curtain to divide a small section of the tent where they keep their few belongings—clothes, a bag of medical supplies that Neriz uses to treat illnesses in the refugee community, and the small food ration that is delivered to each family weekly. A television sits in one corner, and Bollywood stars prance around on its little screen.
We drink glass after glass of sweet dark tea. The tent feels safe, almost cozy. Occasionally, the ground shakes and we hear the “whump” of a bomb falling just across the border in Kobane. I flinch every time this happens on my first couple days in the camp. No one else reacts. The children carry on as if it is merely the sound of birds chirping or nearby traffic. They have become so accustomed to the sounds of violence.
Alladin speaks about Kobane before the war. He used to dig wells and made a good living doing it. Sometimes his work would take him to other countries in the Middle East and Africa. His family had a nice, comfortable life. He tells us of the beauty of the outlying pastoral village he was raised in. He speaks happily about the rolling green hills and blue skies. Evlin, who has been sitting quietly next to her father, begins to cry, the fearless demeanor easily replaced by the natural innocence of a child. She misses her home and wants to know when she will be able to return. “Soon, inshallah,” Alladin responds softly and hugs her close.
When the threat of ISIS reached northern Syria, Alladin went to visit a People’s Protection Units (YPG/YPJ) stronghold on a hill near Kobane. As a show of his support to the Kurdish militia, he asked them if he could bring them anything to help their mission. He had a good work truck, so they asked him to stay on. Trucks like his were of great value to them—they could mount guns to the back and patrol the city. Weapons were not easy to come by and were often purchased on the black market. Every bullet was precious in the fight against the Islamic State.
Like many others new YPG/YPJ recruits, Alladin did not have any combat training. And like many others, that did not dissuade him from defending Kobane. The Kurds, who have kept their culture alive despite being nationless for nearly 100 years, are a fiercely patriotic people. He called Neriz to let her know he would not be coming home for a while.
While defending his city, Alladin and his fellow soldiers fought in dangerously close proximity to ISIS. He lights a cigarette and explains, “Sometimes they were in the same building as us. We put our ear to the wall and could hear them in the next room.”
This war was fought from house to house. They would go through the city, breaking down all the walls to secure each building, ironically forced to lend a hand in destroying Kobane as a means to liberate it from the Islamic State.
When they captured ISIS militants, they found many to be on drugs. They would hold them for observation and see that they wouldn’t eat or sleep for days. Their behavior was frenzied and aggressive until the drugs wore off, then they quickly became frightened and would beg to be released. Alladin stressed that the YPG/YPJ did try to rehabilitate and release their captives. When the call to prayer would blast from their mosques they would tell them, “See, we are Muslim. Just like you.”
As fighting broke out in the villages surrounding Kobane, Neriz was unable to get in contact with Alladin. Weeks passed and tension grew until the fateful day when word reached her that her husband had been shot and killed in combat. Days later, ISIS advanced on Kobane. She called her brother to ask if he was leaving the city. “Yes,” he told her, “we must leave now or they will murder us all.”
They didn’t have time to pack anything. Neriz got Evlin, Hemud and Mustafa in the car and drove to the border of Turkey. Once there, it was chaos. Thousands of refugees were waiting to get across to safety. Turkish military demanded that they leave their cars, their possessions, everything but their children, the clothes on their backs, and what little they could carry. Some shepherds slit the throats of each animal in their flock, one by one, rather then leave them for ISIS militants to plunder later.
As Neriz stepped onto Turkish soil with her three children by her side, her heart sank and tears streamed down her cheeks. In one week she had lost her husband, and country. She wondered when she would return home and what, if anything, would be left.
Many refugees went to Turkish-sponsored camps where they were promised shelter, food and all the aid they would need to survive and wait out the war. However, Neriz and some 180,000 others from Kobane refused to enter these camps where they would be forbidden to speak Kurmanji or teach their children Kurdish history and traditions. In exchange for aid, the Turkish government was demanding assimilation from the ethnic group they have been trying to control for decades.
Neriz and her children settled in Arin Mirxan, a camp on the outskirts of Suruc that had been organized by the Kurdish municipality. They set up their camps in empty fields offered by sympathetic neighbors with land to spare. Electricity, sporadic at best, was rigged illegally from crossing power lines. Latrines were dug on the borders of the camps, far too few for the numbers that would be using them. There were no bathing facilities. Each family was given a tent, a few small foam mattresses and blankets, and an electric hotplate to share with neighbors.
They came so quick and in such large numbers, that the Turkish military couldn’t stop them, though they are not pleased with the RSA settlements. They do what they can to make life difficult for these refugees, already struggling so much. International organizations are not allowed to provide aid to the thousands of civilians living in these camps. Funded solely by grassroots efforts, they survive on the kindness of individuals and organizations clever enough to navigate past political obstacles. As temperatures dipped below freezing in January, we watched as the Turkish military turned away a shipment of space heaters meant for the refugees.
Weeks after arriving in the camp, some good news came to Neriz. Alladin had not been killed, only wounded. Because he was a fighter, crossing the border into Turkey meant risking arrest. He waited until he was well enough and snuck across at night. He was reunited with his family in Arin Mirxan.
Though Alladin is now well enough to return to combat again, Neriz forbids it. She is proud of her husband for fighting for their freedom, but she wants her children to have a father. So Alladin spends his days in the camps like all the others, waiting for news. Sometimes men gather near the border and watch, through binoculars, as the missiles fall on Kobane.
On January 27, 2016 Kobane was liberated. This was a monumental victory for the Kurds and all nations fighting the Islamic State because it was the first time that ISIS had succumbed to any resistance in Syria.
The months of combat and airstrikes left most of Kobane in complete ruin. Corpses and undetonated bombs are still a danger as attempts are made to clean up the city so residents can return. Evlin and her family still live in a refugee camp in Turkey.