Tents manufactured by the Turkish Red Crescent are present following disasters and during conflict in many parts of the world. In government-run camps along the Turkish–Syrian border these tents provide shelter to some 250,000 Syrian refugees.
Photo: Turkish Red Crescent

At the crossroads of crisis

As humanitarian groups from around the world meet in Istanbul, Turkey for the World Humanitarian Summit in May, they have a unique chance to get to know the Turkish Red Crescent, which draws on a rich history and an entrepreneurial spirit as it faces one of the world’s greatest humanitarian challenges right at its doorstep.

At the Turkish Red Crescent Society community centre in Eyyubiye, a district in the ancient city of Sanliurfa, a group of 15 children play and do art projects while their mothers take turns looking after the children and practising sewing on machines made available to refugee women.

Roughly 100 kilometres north of the Syrian border, Sanliurfa has one of the highest concentrations of Syrian refugees in Turkey, some of whom live in nearby camps and others in urban neighbourhoods.

Opened in January 2015, the centre is an example of the National Society’s efforts to help people who have fled the violence in Syria for safer grounds in Turkey. On any given day, the centre welcomes about 50 boys and girls and offers Turkish language lessons, psychosocial support and basic vocational training as a way of helping new arrivals cope in their new surroundings.

The National Society, known in Turkey as Kizilay, has opened four such centres in the past year specifically for newly arrived Syrians living in Sanliurfa, Istanbul, Konya and Ankara. The centre’s services are intended to offer hope for the future for people like 45-year-old Zeynep, who came from Damascus in Syria five years ago after losing her husband in the conflict. Zeynep attends a needlecraft course while her college-aged daughter gives painting lessons to children in the community centre.

Many who take advantage of the centre’s courses also work as volunteers as they try to keep their dreams — interrupted by war — alive. Sara, a 17-year-old from Deir ez-Zor, had to leave school because of war and now she can at least stay active and learn new skills by volunteering at the centre.

Aliye, aged 8, is from Iraq and despite her tender age has suffered from the conflict. Her sister was blinded during attacks in the Iraqi province of Al Anbar and now Aliye comes to the centre’s ‘child-friendly space’ for comfort, activities such as painting and to play with other children. She wants to be a teacher one day. “This is my favourite place in Sanliurfa,” she says.

Looking at the long term

The registered Syrian refugee population in Turkey numbered more than 2.2 million at the end of 2015 (and there are no official figures for the unregistered population) and it is estimated that at least 87 per cent of displaced Syrians live in cities as opposed to government-run camps.

This is one reason that Ahmet Lutfi Akar, president of the Turkish Red Crescent Society, says that community centres are among the most important services developed for their Syrian guests. Aside from helping them move past their experiences of the war, the centres can help them be productive and ultimately learn the Turkish language.

“We know that communication enables maintaining their life more comfortably and helps them solve the problems they may face,” he says, adding that the centres are particularly meaningful for children. “We can show them there is another world apart from guns and bombs and teach them in these community centres that all people are not bad. We have the chance to raise a generation that doesn’t find the solution to all problems in weapons.”

Given the difficulties of migrating elsewhere, and the impossibility of returning to their homes in Syria, it’s clear that longer-term solutions are warranted. The near-complete destruction of city landscapes that support civilian life means that many of these people have nothing to return to even if fighting were to end, notes Mehmet Gulluoglu, director general of the Turkish Red Crescent.

“We can show them there is another world apart from guns and bombs and teach them in these community centres that all people are not bad.”

Ahmet Lutfi Akar, president of the Turkish Red Crescent Society

“Cities such as Aleppo, Hama, Idlib — these are the important cities in Syria and, in many cases, there is virtually no city left,” he notes. “There are no houses, work, schools, hospitals or government buildings. Even if today or tomorrow, the guns are silent, what will they do when they go back?”

Responding to the needs of those who are trying to make their way in Turkish cities is one of Kizilay’s latest adaptations to a massive and growing humanitarian crisis that erupted after the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011 rapidly devolved into an increasingly complex conflict.

As tens of thousands of refugees began to arrive at Turkey’s borders, Kizilay quickly mobilized, helping Syrians arriving at the border and at camps established for the refugees by the Turkish government. Today, more than 260,000 Syrians live in 25 government-run camps near the Syrian border. There, some 150 Turkish Red Crescent staff members provide key services such as healthcare, food and psychosocial support, among other services.

A Turkish Red Crescent staff member distributes relief items to temporarily protected Syrian people in a camp in southern Turkey. Photo: Turkish Red Crescent

There from the beginning

Throughout the crisis, the National Society has worked with national and international partners to find new ways to better serve those in need. In 2012, for example, the Turkish Red Crescent and the World Food Programme launched an e-voucher programme, in cooperation with the Turkish state-owned Halkbank, which gives people the opportunity to buy what they need from local markets rather than simply receiving food packages.

“This is good for the people we are trying to assist and for local markets,” says Gulluoglu, adding that Kizilay is working on expanding the system to more markets within the larger community, not just those in the camps. By 2015, the e-voucher programme had spread to 11 camps and had provided food worth more than 317 million Turkish lira (US$ 144.7 million).

The Turkish Red Crescent has also done what it can to help communities inside Syria by bringing food, medical and household supplies to 12 points along the Syrian–Turkish border. “One of the problems we need to solve is what to do to help those who have not crossed the Turkish border,” says Akar, noting that people living just inside Syria deserve as much help as those who have taken refuge inside Turkey.

The total amount of humanitarian relief items delivered from the Turkish border to Syria is more than US$ 400 million, he says. “I believe we would have faced more hunger problems if the Turkish Red Crescent and other international aid organizations had not provided this aid,” he says.

“Cities such as Aleppo, Hama, Idlib — these are the important cities in Syria and, in many cases, there is virtually no city left … Even if today or tomorrow, the guns are silent, what will `{`the refugees`}` do when they go back?”

Mehmet Gulluoglu, director general of the Turkish Red Crescent

Since the beginning of the Syria crisis, Turkish Red Crescent workers have mobilized to help Syrians seeking refuge inside Turkey. Here, a Turkish Red Crescent worker hands a bottle of water to one of the many thousands of civilians who fled across the border into Turkey in September 2014. Photo: Turkish Red Crescent

Beyond relief

Given the protracted nature of the Syria crisis, however, humanitarian organizations including the Turkish Red Crescent see the need to go beyond emergency relief. “In the short term, nutrition and shelter are critically important,” says Gulluoglu. “But in the middle to long term, the community centres and the things we can do to reduce the impact of this crisis on the guest communities are equally important.”

According to the needs assessment report prepared for the Sanliurfa community centre by Başak Yavçan, professor at the University of Economics and Technology in Ankara, life for refugees living in cities is in many ways even harder than for those living in the camps.

“Refugees live in crowded, single-room households, working for very low wages in aggravated conditions [and] facing discrimination,” Yavçan writes in her report, which was commissioned by the Center for Middle Eastern Strategic Studies, the IFRC and the Turkish Red Crescent.

Despite this, the city-based refugees are generally satisfied with the relative safety of their new surroundings, the free services and humanitarian aid, the hospitality of locals, the welcoming attitude of the Turkish government and the professionalism of the Turkish Red Crescent, according to the study.

But the availability of these services doesn’t mean their problems are solved. Far from it. First, there is the language barrier. While there is much cultural affinity between communities on both sides of the border, few Turks speak Arabic and few Syrians speak Turkish.

Then there are legal roadblocks. The Syrians who settle in urban areas and who do not always register as refugees in camps are generally subject to Turkey’s ‘guest law’ as opposed to national refugee laws, meaning that their rights and access to some services are reduced. One common complaint is that their children cannot attend school, which stymies their potential relationships with local children, their academic development and their ability to overcome the traumas of war, according to the report.

As the number of centres expands, the assessment of the Sanliurfa community centre offers insights into the opportunities and difficulties ahead. One potential challenge is if local residents begin to resent the services offered to refugees, given that life for locals has also deteriorated since the war in Syria began. The report recommends increased collaboration and inclusion of locals, especially children, in centre activities.

Also, if the job skills learned through the centre’s courses cannot be applied or result in few jobs, people may lose interest. The report suggests active dialogue with employers and local chambers of commerce, as well as flexible course hours, so people don’t have to drop out once they do find work.

These efforts take on greater significance given the increased pressure to stop the flow of migrants from Turkey towards Europe. Refugees and their host communities may well face the prospect of living with each other for some time to come.

Throughout the crisis, the Turkish population has been generous to people fleeing from Syria, Gulluoglu says. While international aid and donations from private individuals have played an important role, the government of Turkey has shouldered most of the costs of caring for the Syrian people living in camps.

But as the conflict drags on and refugee numbers continue to swell, will Turkish society continue to be tolerant and supportive? “The level of acceptance of Turkish society for the Syrian people is just as important as the question of the financial load,” Gulluoglu says. “The government can arrange the budget, but the level of acceptance and the level of absorbing Syrians at the community level are critical.”

Growing international operations

The Turkish Red Crescent’s international humanitarian efforts have also been increasing in recent years. When major crises occur and an international Movement response is mobilized, such as in Haiti in 2010, Nepal in 2015 and many others in between, Kizilay has been there.

Its most extensive ongoing international operation is in Gaza, where it has received significant public support for campaigns that fund food distributions, water-rehabilitation projects, support for local hospitals, agricultural projects, donation of ambulances and student scholarships, among many other things.

One of the more complex and ambitious international operations in recent years has been in Somalia, where Kizilay began working in 2011 following drought and a major food security crisis that came in the midst of protracted armed struggle between armed groups and the transitional government.

Kizilay brought in 4.6 million kilograms of food items and built a camp for 2,500 families, as well as initiating several development aid projects including a public works and engineering facility to help clean rubble, dispose of rain water and rebuild roads, among other things. It is also involved in constructing a machinery, electrical engineering and computer science school for 360 students.

These are ambitious undertakings in a country as fragile and volatile as Somalia and the efforts are not without challenges. The National Society’s emblem helped it work alongside the Somali Red Crescent Society, generally accepted by most actors, and Kizilay’s presence helped spur further action by other international humanitarian organizations.

Humanitarian crossroads

Kizilay’s international experience and its central role in the Syrian conflict and the related migration phenomenon have placed it at the intersection of some of today’s most vexing humanitarian challenges.

A long-time leading voice in the Movement, Kizilay belongs to both the old guard of National Societies created in Europe in the late 1800s and a vanguard of Red Crescent societies increasingly making their mark in an aid world that has been historically dominated by Europe and the West. That is starting to change and Red Crescent societies are part of that process, playing a larger role in international humanitarian operations and leading relief efforts on the front lines of many of today’s emergencies.

“Turkey was always a bridge country: between East and West; between North and South; between Africa and Europe,” says Gulluoglu.

As leading humanitarian organizations meet in Istanbul for the World Humanitarian Summit in May, the Movement’s oldest Red Crescent society is in a position to bring all its experience to bear as humanitarians collectively re-imagine how to develop more sustainable and effective responses to the world’s most intractable problems.

“We have to use humanitarian aid resources efficiently and effectively,” says Akar, when asked about his hopes for the summit’s outcomes. “We are providing help to millions of people as a humanitarian organization, but there are more people in need. This means we have to find new resources and also use current resources more effectively.

“We must push and mobilize our governments for both support and protection of our work. Governments should understand that we are impartial humanitarian aid workers,” he says. “If [this understanding] is achieved, we will then be able to provide more help to places such as Gaza, Somalia and Iraq. I hope that the summit will produce a new approach and more coordinated road map of humanitarian aid.”

Ahmer Cemiyeti’ — was the first National Society to use the Red Crescent as an emblem. A founding member of the IFRC, the National Society was renamed ‘Kızılay’ by the first Turkish president, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, in 1935, after the foundation of the Republic of Turkey. Ataturk also took concrete steps to ensure Kizilay’s long-term survival. At the outset, he donated to the National Society a bottled water factory as a means to generate income for humanitarian activities. Today, the Turk Kizilayi brand of bottled water is a market leader in Turkey. Photo: Turkish Red Crescent

This sense of enterprise is present in other Kizilay operations. Since 1954, the Turkish Red Crescent has itself manufactured the tents it uses in emergency operations around the world. Photo: Turkish Red Crescent

Similarly, the Turkish Red Crescent’s General Directorate of Blood Service is responsible for gathering more than 80 per cent of the country’s blood donations through 17 regional blood-donation centres, 65 blood-donation centres and mobile blood-donation teams. Photo: Turkish Red Crescent

In the past decade, the Turkish Red Crescent has also become increasingly active in international operations, delivering humanitarian assistance in countries as diverse as Afghanistan, Central African Republic, Guinea-Bissau, Mauritania, Montenegro, Myanmar (pictured here), Pakistan and Somalia, among others. Photo: Turkish Red Crescent


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