TORBALI, Turkey, 16 March 2017 - Yazi Al-Rajab’s hands are calloused and cracked, dark brown dirt accentuating the creases and caked deep under her fingernails. A mother of five including a six-month old, Yazi, a Syrian refugee, looks older than her 35 years. But she stands arrow straight waiting patiently on line to pick up bags of winter clothes for her children.
“The winter is so cold and the rain makes so much mud,” she explained. “The children always have wet, cold feet. They need boots and sweaters.”
Yazi and her family are seasonal agricultural workers, some of Syria’s most destitute refugees. Her home in Torbali, just outside of Izmir, Turkey’s third largest city, is a ragged, sagging rectangular white tarp, one of 40 tents housing 275 Syrian refugees in a mud-puddled olive farm.
UNICEF, partnering with the Association for Solidarity for Asylum Seekers and Migrants (ASAM), supported this clothes distribution specifically for families with children between the age of 4 and 8. Each bag contained socks, gloves, sky blue rubber boots, a winter jacket and thermal undergarments for one child. UNICEF is targeting 1,200 migrant refugee children in the area.
It is leek harvest time in Torbali. The fields stretch out flat and muddy from recent rains, dotted with bent bodies picking and packing. Almost all the migrants here in Torbali district, about 6,000 living in eight settlements, are Syrian refugees, seasonal agricultural workers that move every few months. They follow the harvests across Turkey from red peppers, cotton, peanuts and oranges in the South East, potatoes in Anatolia to hazel nuts along the Black Sea coast and to leeks, celery, cabbage and tangerines around Izmir.
Syrian refugees, cheaper to employ, have been here for about three years, displacing Turkish seasonal workers. Their nomadic life-style has made them highly vulnerable. To access health care and education where they live, the Turkish government requires Syrians to register in that province. In the city of Izmir, just over 102,000 Syrian refugees are officially registered. But with identity cards taking several months to process, about 70 percent of Torbali’s fluid population of refugee field workers remain without an Izmir-issued identity card.
Hardest hit are the estimated 3,500 Syrian children living in these camps. UNICEF has so far identified 2,600 in the area. They do not attend school and are particularly vulnerable to early marriage, chronic illnesses and child labor. Eight ASAM outreach teams monitor and identify needs in these camps, facilitating access to services as well as distributing in-kind assistance. They identify the number of children, their needs and gender. In case of emergencies, they contact local authorities even going directly to prosecutors if they identify child abuse.
Selim Cakmak, 27, is an outreach team veteran who has worked with refugees for the past seven years. Like his fellow team members, he is from Hatay, a province in Turkey’s Southeast, bordering Syria and is fluent in Arabic.
“I love helping people,” Selim said while chatting with Yazi and her son, Abdur Rahim Aziz, as he helped the giggling four-year-old put on his new winter clothes.
“When I see a small smile on a kid’s face, I know I will sleep soundly that night. We don’t start a distribution before playing with the kids.”
Selim and his team also raise awareness on education and help link children to both formal and informal learning opportunities in the area. But here in the camps, where children are critical in supporting the family, convincing the fathers in particular is a drawn out and difficult task.
Yazi and her husband, Halaf Aziz, 42, are from a small town near Al Hazakah in Northeast Syria. They owned goats and sold milk and eggs but earned a living mostly as seasonal agricultural workers. Yazi’s husband and their nine-year-old daughter now work picking leeks.
“The plan is for all the kids to work in the fields,” Yazi said. “Their father doesn’t want the children to go to school.”
Selim knows well the rhythms of the Syrians’ daily lives. They live near the fields on land owned by the farm owner. They earn about 40 TL (US$11) for a 10-hour day and pay their landlord about US$55 monthly rent. Another landlord will truck the families to their next farm. The camps consist of large extended families. They eat the products they pick and many of the children work in the fields. The single room tents here are set up along a wide muddy path. A narrow hand-dug rut siphons off rain water but the camp still floods regularly. There are a few drop toilets and ubiquitous piles of garbage and plastic.
It took the outreach team a couple of hours to unload the boxes, organize the distribution and update their needs assessment. In all, 130 children in Yazi’s camp received a kit. Many decided to immediately put on all their new clothes. The empty UNICEF marked boxes quickly became the most popular toy.
“This is my favorite part of the day,” said Selim. “I love this job.”
UNICEF’s winterization program in Izmir is funded by the United States Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration (BPRM).