The New York Times Magazine
How to Build a Perfect Refugee Camp

From the outside, the temporary shelter for Syrian civilians in Kilis, Turkey, doesn’t look like an inviting place to live. It looks like a prison. All around are olive groves, but here, Turkey suddenly runs out. A metal archway announces the customs gate to Syria. To its right stands what is more formally known as the Republic of Turkey Prime Ministry Disaster and Emergency Management Presidency’s Kilis Oncupinar Accommodation Facility. High gates bar entry, and barbed wire tops the walls. Police officers and private security mill about. Many of the world’s displaced live in conditions striking for their wretchedness, but what is startling about Kilis is how little it resembles the refugee camp of our imagination. It is orderly, incongruously so. Residents scan a card with their fingerprints for entry, before they pass through metal detectors and run whatever items they’re carrying through an X-ray machine. Inside, it’s stark: 2,053 identical containers spread out in neat rows. No tents. None of the smells, rotting garbage, raw sewage, usually associated with human crush and lack of infrastructure.

On April 29, 2011, 263 Syrians crossed into Turkey, fleeing civil war at home. Within 24 hours, the Turkish government set up an emergency tent camp for them in southern Hatay Province. In less than three years, it was operating 22 camps serving 210,000 refugees, mostly in provinces along its roughly 500-mile-long border with Syria. Kilis, opened in 2012, was one of six container camps meant to offer a better standard of shelter to incoming refugees. When I visited last October, the camp was full, and a group of squatters outside waited for placement. As we entered, my translator, Ahmad Ajouz, himself a Syrian refugee who lives in an apartment in nearby Gaziantep, said to no one in particular, “It’s so clean.” Turkish workers, hunting for litter to sweep from the meticulously laid, brand-new brick paths, were merely doing maintenance between rounds of street-washing trucks. Suddenly, one of these appeared, spraying down and scrubbing the avenues. There were other luxuries. Power lines, and at least as many streetlights as you would find in a nice suburban neighborhood. Multiple playgrounds that look like McDonald’s PlayPlaces. Containers housing maintenance men who can fix electric or plumbing problems. Fire hydrants. Several large structures housed the camp’s schools. The first was the Olive Preschool and Kindergarten. The children weren’t yet in class, and as we walked on the gleaming tiles, the spacious hallway echoed. Big cutouts of Snow White and the dwarfs decorated the walls, along with Turkish flags. A sign read, “You’re welcome.” The principal, Gulcin Dogan, a 26-year-old Turk with long light hair and glossy red lipstick, met us in front of one classroom. There are two floors, she explained, one for each grade, about 450 kids in each. Dogan, a psychologist by training, does double duty counseling children in need of it. Which is many of them. At the next school over, class was in session. You could hear children reciting and clapping; from the window, several waved. Two thousand two hundred and twenty-five students attend school here, in sex-segregated classes per the Syrians’ request. One Syrian teacher admitted that this refugee-camp school is nicer than the public schools at home. “It’s the nicest refugee camp in the world!” a Polish diplomat staying at my hotel crowed when I mentioned the place to him the next day. Standing with him was an Italian official; he nodded vehemently in agreement. No one I spoke to — not the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, not academics, not even the refugees — denies that the standard of living here is exceptionally high. When I later listed the amenities to a refugee expert, she replied, “I’ve never heard of such a thing.” “You have a refugee problem, what do you do?” said ...(..click here for the article)


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