Photographs by Ali Haj Suleiman, an independent Syrian photographer living in northern Syria. His photos have been published in numerous newspapers and media sites, including Al Jazeera, The New York Times and Human Rights Watch.
Words by Dellair Youssef.
Translated by: Madeline Edwards.
This story has been published with support of reelink media, with photographs of the al-Rawdeh camp in the Mashhad Rouhin area of northwestern Syria, in November 2022.
The sun rises over the tent. Home is merely a little tent that protects neither from the heat of summer nor the bitter winter cold. Each winter is harsher than the last. Years have passed since many of the people living in these camps last saw the sunrise from their own houses.
What have we done for the world to wrong us like this? How have we faulted? Where in life did we go astray, to be met with this pain and suffering? And where is the world, living its “brightest age of peace” while our tragedies play out? Where are the values of this civilized world, one now transformed into a small village ruled by technology, restricting its hopes and ideals? How can the world and life be the same as they were before, after all that we’ve gone through?
Are the borders of this camp also our own? Where are the borders of our dreams? The sky, or the sea? What words can we give our children, who opened their eyes and saw themselves inside these tents? How can I explain to a young child the meaning of school, house, street, park, freedom, life?
I sit in front of my tent. I look around me and consider my previous life, all that I did and wish I could do. I wonder what could have happened if I made one decision or another. What if I could replace previous actions with different ones?
We played football in the streets of our cities, towns and narrow neighborhoods, inventing toys that wouldn’t cost our parents too much. Our houses stacked on top of eachother. Strangers hardly knew where the boundaries of their homes ended, and everyone in the neighborhood knew what everyone else’s house looked like on the inside.
We played everywhere, we fought and we reconciled. All the men were our fathers and all the women our mothers. The old men and women were our grandparents.
Everybody was poor. Many families lived below the poverty line, even though the government considered them middle class. At the time we didn’t see ourselves as poor, but today we are destitute, no horizon before us. Our borders stop at those of the camp, sometimes even at the walls of our tent.
This is the tent that we’ve tried replacing with other things, other, stronger tents, pre-fabricated houses. Anything that makes our lives better, even if only a little.
We don’t do these things on our own. We can’t. Our friends help us, our families help us, our comrades and other remaining survivors help us. Or, those who simply share in this same path in life help build our new, temporary, homes.
Previous years saw millions, maybe more, spent on tents. The humanitarian organizations said from the beginning: Give the people tents. Lots and lots of tents. These shelters never last long under the changing weather--maybe six months at best before they need replacing. It is unacceptable for any family to live in a tent, so where does that put those of us who have been living in these camps for years?
I’m talking about the elderly, about women, children and people with special needs. They cannot be left to live out long years in tents torn by the wind and inundated with rain. Tents don’t provide warmth in winter and can’t protect from summer heat.
And the tents have many, many defects. We’ve seen hundreds of fires in the camps. There is also the situation for women here, where life has no stability, in crowded environments where hundreds of people live crammed with no doors to shut behind them. Many families have requested safer housing.
That’s why we build the new temporary homes. Maybe they’ll be safer than the tents that have swallowed up our lives.
The fire is eating us now. It has been eating us for years, having devoured our homes and our hearts only wanting more. This camp is destined for ruin no matter how pristine it looks today. The flames won’t be extinguished above our homes, but rather consume the whole world, change its face. Such is the nature of things: the fire will consume the world sooner or later. Our homes are just one glimpse of this future.
Nothing has changed, and nothing will. Consider the sun setting and rising above our homes, which were doubtless better than these old tents. Is this really a place that can contain the dreams of a young child who wants to play football in the World Cup, display their paintings in the biggest museums, and live with their family in peace, only peace?