12/13/2013 11:52 EST | Updated 02/12/2014 05:59 EST

I Visited a Syrian Refugee Camp, and This Is What I Saw

Adel was in Homs during the heavy shelling which obliterated the Syrian city's Baba Amr district. He had been studying English at the university and had stayed on to do his military service. As the conflict raged on it became obvious to him that he would have to flee.

With the overland route no longer safe he managed to scrape together the funds to buy a plane ticket to the city of Qamishli, near his home town. Running out of options and funds, he then made his way to the border and crossed into Iraq, becoming a refugee.


For the past eight months, Adel has been working tirelessly as an interpreter for MSF in the Domeez refugee camp near the Syria-Iraq border. Domeez was built for 6,000 people and now holds over 50,000. MSF and the Ministry of Health run the health facilities for what has become a small city of Syrian refugees.

Here, as in most MSF projects around the world, MSF's national staff are the backbone of the team. In addition to greatly expanding the response capacity of the few expatriate doctors, logisticians and other international staff that MSF brings in, the national staff have the local knowledge needed to ensure that our programs succeed. They are a vital conduit to the people we serve, providing translation, helping us ensure that cultural norms are respected, and resolving any misunderstandings which arise.

For several hours Adel was my guide through the camp. He showed me the new arrivals area where people are housed dormitory-style under large communal tents. We also went to the single men's section. The single men are considered vulnerable, oddly enough. They receive less aid and are expected to find jobs outside the camp. We also toured the most precarious areas, with their makeshift shelters and tell-tale plastic sheeting, sprouting up on the outskirts of the camp where unregistered families had gathered.


Elsewhere, I discovered that the more established sections of the camp now have electricity and water tanks. In addition to having arrived earlier and found better paying jobs, some had started small stands to sell produce and supplies to the new arrivals.

"Here families were beginning to replace their UNHCR canvas tents with concrete block walls, and their streets had begun taking on an air of permanence."

In each section we would stop and Adel would ask permission for us to enter tents to talk with the refugee families inside. He would then translate their stories so I could understand.

We heard how some had fled fresh violence in Syria in the past weeks, while others had been repeatedly displaced within the country. Many had run out of possessions to sell to buy food, and safe places to flee to. They had also run out of hope that the war would come to an end anytime soon, and had finally and reluctantly decided to leave their home country behind and make their way to Iraq.

Some had left families behind and their sleep was now troubled. They felt guilty at being safe while others remained in harm's way.

Amongst those recently arrived, many were having trouble getting registered. This meant they could not obtain food vouchers, nor could they get tents of their own. They were forced to stay with relatives or friends.

Adel was soft-spoken and kind and he seemed to instantly put everyone at ease. Finally, tired and dusty, we headed back to the main clinic to join our colleagues for the short ride back to town. On the way I was telling Adel how we needed to be patient, to spend the time talking with people in order to better understand their predicaments and better meet their needs. Most families had been uprooted multiple times over two and a half years of conflict.

It was then that Adel opened up and told me his own story that I related above. He was clearly proud to be working for MSF and to be helping his fellow refugees. I could only imagine how hard it must have been for him to hear story after story of trials and tribulation all the while worried for his own family back in Syria.

With the fighting approaching Qamishli his brothers and parents had also thought of fleeing, but they had been prevented from leaving by the village authorities. "Hopefully they will remain safe or be permitted to join me," Adel said.

"Mr. Steve," he said, "would you like to visit another tent, another family so you can better tell the refugee story when you return?"

"Adel," I said, "if you will permit me to tell your own story then I will have enough."

We posed for a picture, hugged, and with a flash of his smile he was off to continue his work. Thanks to Adel I can tell you not only the stories of the residents of Domeez but also his story as well.

This is the second blog in a three-part series calledFocus on Syria, about my thoughts and observations after travelling to Syria and the surrounding region earlier this year.


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