Syrian crisis takes tragic toll on refugee families

The El Ilevis fled Syria for Turkey over a year ago during an attack that killed their mother and left Emine, seven, seriously injured.

By Can Remzi Ergen
 Emine, 7, sleeps in the emergency room at the hospital in Adana, Turkey. She was injured when a bomb hit her family's home in Syria, killing her mother who was pregnant at the time.
21 March 2018

One year ago, Ahmed El Ilevi began most of his days in the emergency room. He and his children had just moved to Adana in Turkey from Syria, after being forced from their home during heavy bombardments.

Seven-year-old Emine, his oldest child, was severely injured by a bomb during one of the attacks, and had been in and out of hospitals ever since. Even if she was just running a fever, Ahmed wouldn’t take chances. The family had already been through so much.

“We have lost our home, our life. We have been through poverty, and been cast here and there by the wind,” he said.

Emine being pushed in her wheelchair by her siblings.
Emine being pushed in her wheelchair by her siblings.

Ahmed’s wife, the mother of his five young children, was pregnant when the bomb hit their home directly. The entire family witnessed her death.

With the children in tow and still grieving the loss of his wife, Ahmed took Emine from city to city, hospital to hospital in Syria, for treatment. Sometimes the family would find themselves huddling together to get some sleep outside of hospitals under attack.

After moving through four cities and five hospitals, they finally settled in Adana, Turkey. But adjusting to life there – the new surroundings, the unfamiliar language – wasn’t easy for the children. Emine in particular was scared of being alone. “I only want my dad to stay with me all the time,” she said.

Since the onset of the conflict in Syria, more than 5.6 million people, including 2.6 million children, have been living as registered refugees in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt. Most of them face challenges with income and poverty.

The El Ilevis were no exception. They rented a tiny apartment in Adana, but money was tight and the family struggled to stay afloat. Ahmed relied on relatives in Syria for income, but some months he was unable to pay rent.

Emine and her siblings tried to help their father by taking care of each other, and especially by looking after the youngest – two-year-old Hasan.

Emine hugs her little brother. After a year of living in Turkey, the children are now doing much better.
Emine hugs her little brother from her wheelchair.
Hasan, 2, smiles at the camera with his siblings behind him.
The older siblings help with looking after two-year-old Hasan.

“The youngest children are the smallest fruit of the tree…you have to give them more attention,” said Ahmed. “But I can never find enough time as I have to do the laundry and the dishes and cook for the whole family.”

Although he struggled with his new situation, Ahmed is a hero in the eyes of his children. Four-year-old Huseyn even drew pictures of his father in a superhero cape. “He’s flying towards me… He’s flying home…”

Ahmed smiled at his family. “Heroes know how to keep their chins up at the worst of times,” he said. “But I’m not a hero; I just did what I had to do. Every father should take loving care of his children.”

Emine smiling for the camera
One year on and Emine is now doing much better both physically and psychologically.

One year later

The El İlevi family is still in the same apartment, but inside, the appearance and the mood have changed drastically. There is more furniture, and more goods and appliances in the home, which make their lives easier.

The children are doing better psychologically and physically. Going to school, even just for one year, has helped normalize their life. Though the family’s income is still limited, the children can attend school thanks to a cash transfer for education programme, which provides families with money for schooling on the condition that the child attends school regularly. Outreach teams also visit families whose children are struggling to meet the attendance requirements of the programme, referring them to specialized services as required.

Emine and her brothers and sisters love being in school. They have made friends to play and learn with, and their teachers are caring and supportive. Emine has learned to speak Turkish and is not as withdrawn as she used to be. Although she still has some health problems, her hospital visits are less frequent.

After seven years of war in Syria and still no end in sight, Ahmed doesn’t have much hope of returning home soon. But he is optimistic for his children’s future in their new home. “I hope that education will bring them more and more opportunities,” he says.

Two of Emine's younger brothers lean out of a window for the camera at their home in Adana.
Two of Emine's younger brothers play at their home in Adana.
Emine grins as she folds a sheet at their home in Adana.
Emine grins as she folds a sheet at their home in Adana.

In 2017, UNICEF provided emergency cash or vouchers to more than 200,000 Syrian refugees in Turkey and Lebanon. In 2018, UNICEF is appealing for $1.3 billion in emergency funding to continue providing life-saving assistance to children in Syria and in refugee host countries including Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey.

Turkey’s Conditional Cash Transfer for Education (CCTE) Programme aims to encourage enrolment and improve school attendance of the most vulnerable children. The programme is a national social assistance programme which has been implemented by Turkey’s Ministry of Family and Social Policies since 2003. In early 2017, it was extended to Syrian and other refugee families and is being implemented through a close partnership between the Ministry of Family and Social Policies, the Ministry of National Education, the Turkish Red Crescent and UNICEF. The extension of the programme has been made possible by the generous support of the European Union, and is also supported by the Governments of Norway and the United States of America.