Kilis is a small town in southern Turkey, situated a few miles away from the border with Syria. Under normal circumstances the town would be just another sleepy border city. However, since the civil war in neighboring Syria started, Kilis has been inundated with Syrian nationals who first began filling the government run refugee camps there, and have subsequently began spilling into the city itself.
I spent some time there staying with two pediatricians who work at the local state hospital. Before doctors can practice in Turkey they must work for a year and half in a hospital in the south, a sort of hardship post. Many of the doctors I met at the hospital were working one of these posts. The Turkish government has had to increase the staff at the hospital to deal with the influx of patients from Syria, many of whom are badly injured, having come from Aleppo and surrounding areas where fighting is heavy.
When I arrived at the bus station there were whole families with large bags of possessions and muddy shoes, possibly having just crossed the border. I was picked up by one of the doctors and hadn’t been in the car for more than 5 minutes before he received a call that he was needed at the hospital immediately. I would get used to him receiving these emergency calls over the next few days, having to make a U-turn and accelerate to the hospital at a rapid pace. This first night it was for a Syrian baby born prematurely. The hospital in Kilis lacks the means to deal with serious cases and has to send some patients to the larger hospital in Gaziantep, about a 45-minute drive north. The pediatricians told me there are many cases of parents not wanting to leave to go with their children to Gaziantep, instead returning to Syria or to one of the camps, effectively abandoning them. “I don’t know what happens to them after they go to Gaziantep,” one doctor told me.
I heard stories about the hospital being filled with victims from Aleppo, lining the hallways, many critically wounded. The doctors save those that they can, but all they can do for some is comfort them until their inevitable demise. All of this is pretty much on display for anyone to witness. I was a bit shocked at the access one has being able to walk around the hospital. Patients were being wheeled openly through large waiting areas, family members wandered through the corridors of the hospital, Syrian rebel soldiers loitered around outside. One man showed me where he had been shot fighting, and removed his shoe to show where he had lost his big toe. The language barrier only further complicates matters, as many Turks don’t speak Arabic and Syrians don’t speak Turkish. You could see the confusion at work with people wandering around trying to find anyone who could answer questions for them, but with the hospital largely relying on a few volunteer translators, most simply have to wait.
I was able to accompany one of the pediatricians on her shift at the Oncupinar refugee camp, right across the border from Syria. During an 8 hour shift at the camp medical center, it’s not unusual for the pediatrician on duty to see over 200 patients. It seemed like they saw that amount in only the 4 hours I was there, the staff working with perfect efficiency. Sometimes there was an ordered line stretching outside with only one or two patients in the room. More often than not the room would be overflowing with mothers and their babies, a cacophony of Arabic to Turkish back to Arabic, a look in the throat, the ears, then on to the next patient. Respiratory problems, foot injuries and skin rashes are some of the most common ailments seen in the camp.
Walking around the camp provided an interesting glance at the lives of the displaced. School was just letting out and droves of young Syrians were running around with identical backpacks, playing football, picking on each other. It looked like a typical school yard in any other place. Life seemed almost too normal for many of the people there, unsurprising as many have been there for over two years. What was supposed to be a temporary solution has now turned into one straining the resources of the Turkish government and it’s people. The Oncupinar camp was originally supposed to host 12,000 people, but now holds upwards of 17,000. Two smaller camps have also been established to deal with the influx of refugees. Rent prices in Kilis have gone up as well because of the number of Syrians looking for apartments or houses to rent there.
All parties involved seem to simply be doing the best that they can under the circumstances. However, no one I spoke with shared any optimism about the situation, or the world’s intervention (or lack thereof) in Syria. Talks are set to take place in Geneva later in the month, but opposition members are now hesitant to attend due to the recent bombing campaign around Aleppo which has killed scores of civilians. Until some sort of agreement is reached, one thing is certain, the doctors at the Kilis hospital are going to continue having their work cut out for them.