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  • The Lessons of AtmehIn one of the harshest camps for refugees of the Syrian conflict, even the best intentions can backfire.
  • Essay by Joshua Hersh
    Illustrations by Danijel Žeželj

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[End Page 25]

Yakzan Shishakly had been working as the unofficial manager of a Syrian refugee camp for about a year when he was kidnapped by the people he was trying to help. It was summer 2013 and Shishakly, an affable and earnest thirty-six-year-old Syrian-American, was there for one of his regular visits. The camp, known as Atmeh after the Syrian town closest to it, is situated on a gently sloping field of packed dirt and low-lying brush, along a featureless stretch of the border near the Turkish town of Reyhanli. When Shishakly first laid eyes on the camp, the summer before, only a handful of families were there, taking refuge in the shade of an olive grove. By winter their numbers had risen into the thousands. With fuel growing scarce, and with no expectations of being there the next summer, refugees cut down most of the olive trees for firewood.

Because Atmeh is in a rebel-held part of Syria, where a brutal and destabilizing conflict has been underway since 2011, it inhabits a space that often seems to fall between spheres of responsibility. The Syrian government has no meaningful presence in the northern borderlands, other than to periodically send warplanes to drop bombs. The Syrian opposition, meanwhile, remains fractured and resourceless, providing little more than infrequent expressions of outrage and pleading press releases on the camp’s behalf. The Turks, who have built state-of-the-art facilities for refugees within their borders, monitor the camp from afar, but mainly to contain rather than intervene. And the United Nations, in a perverse twist, can do little but watch: Barred from operating in a sovereign nation without that government’s permission or a Security Council resolution, its officials have been largely unable to set foot inside northern Syria, let alone turn Atmeh into a proper refugee camp like those in Jordan or Turkey. The line separating Turkey from Atmeh, demarcated by as little as a waist-high stretch of barbed wire, might as well be a towering fortification.

In this sorrowful morass, Shishakly thought he glimpsed an opportunity. He had come to Turkey from his home near Houston, Texas, soon after the start of the Syrian uprising, determined to contribute in some way to the opposition. Shishakly’s grandfather, Adib Shishakly, had been one of Syria’s last presidents before the country fell into the hands of the Ba’ath Party and the family of Syria’s current president, Bashar Assad; the elder Shishakly had provided postcolonial Syria’s first sustained period of political and economic stability. It only seemed logical to Yakzan that a democratic revolution against Assad would include a role for him and his venerable family name. [End Page 26]

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After Yakzan arrived in Reyhanli, where many Syrian-run humanitarian organizations are based, he began to venture into northern Syria, eventually finding his way to Atmeh in the summer of 2012. By then, the build-up of people at the border had spiked, after the Turkish government stopped letting Syrians flow freely into their country. As the fighting and bombardment of Hama and Idlib provinces raged, the displaced kept arriving in droves. In Houston, Shishakly had run a small heating-and-cooling company in the suburbs, and what the Atmeh encampment seemed to need most was someone with business acumen and a touch of entrepreneurial spirit. He created a foundation, which he called Maram, and set about securing contributions from Western nations and private donors while orchestrating the distribution of aid within the camp.

It was exhausting work, but also deeply rewarding. Within a few months, resources were flowing steadily into the settlement. Private aid groups had begun to deliver food and tents, and to construct bakeries and schools. Life for the [End Page 27] refugees was improving. Residents started getting used to seeing Shishakly every day, and they took to calling him...


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