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On the Refugee Trail

Joshua Hersh

In September, I spent some time traveling across Europe -- Germany, Hungary, Serbia, Croatia -- catching up with some of the tens of thousands of refugees and migrants, most from the Middle East, as they sought refuge in Western Europe. 

In Serbia and Croatia, I met them out on hot highways and bottlenecked border crossings, where they waited for authorities to decide what to do with them, or to sort out the finer points of international diplomacy -- only to face even greater obstacles with every step. Often there was good cheer; sometimes there was frustration, even clashes.

In Germany, I watched as Germans and Syrians alike came out to welcome those who had finally made it, at the Munich train station. Later, in Berlin, I met a family whose early days on the trail were captured in a famous, and heartbreaking photograph -- they'd made it safely to their destination.

Finally, in East Germany, I took a longer look at some of the forces rising up against the tide of refugees entering Europe, especially those on the right and far-right of the political spectrum. That piece asked whether the extremist attacks against refugees and their homes were a series of isolated incidents, or whether they represented something much more nefarious, and ominous for the nearly one million refugees who can be expected to turn up in Germany this year alone.

The Lessons of Atmeh

Joshua Hersh

In the summer of 2012, Yakzan Shishakly, a Syrian-American who had traveled to southern Turkey in order to involve himself in the Syrian uprising, discovered hundreds of refugees who were stranded just across the border, near a Syrian town called Atmeh. Because they were on the wrong side of the international boundary, the copious Western and Turkish aid could hardly reach them. Over the next year or so, Shishakly would devote his life and resources to trying to help these forsaken refugees, while forces of ill-will, the deterioration of the Syrian conflict, and his own human flaws, conspired against him.

In the Fall 2014 issue of the Virginia Quarterly Review, I wrote about Shishakly's quixotic quest, and the diminishing hopes of a once-promising revolution. The story includes gorgeous illustrations by Danijel Žeželj. Here is how it begins:

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.

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 refugees was improving. Residents started getting used to seeing Shishakly every day, and they took to calling him mukhtar, or mayor.

Click here to read the rest.

Refugees, Benghazi, Mers: A May Grab Bag

Joshua Hersh

An assortment of articles from May, mostly reported from Turkey:

Syrian Families Living Outside Turkish Refugee Camps Face Tough Conditions

May 22, 2014

NARLICA, Turkey -- Back in Syria's Hama province, where he is from, Ali once had a beautiful home, with ornate tile work, a pair of cars and a driver to help him get around.

But after he was imprisoned briefly for anti-government political activity, the Syrian army seized his home and all his possessions, he said, even stopping to dig up the valuable floor tiles.

Today, Ali lives with his extended family in a cramped, one-story building in this remote suburb of Antakya, where he struggles to find enough money to feed his family, and often fails to make rent.

"We have nothing," said Ali, who asked to be identified only by his first name, as he sat on a thin mattress in his home's simply appointed sitting area.

In one corner of the room, three young children watched Turkish-language "Tom and Jerry" cartoons on an antiquated 20-inch television. In another, Ali's aging mother, who suffers from diabetes and chronic pain, cried softly for her daily treatments.

Turkey has earned praise for its management of the massive inflow of refugees from Syria, especially the quarter million or so who have managed to find rooms in one of the pristine government-run camps.

But the vast majority of Syrians taking refuge in Turkey -- half a million or more, by United Nations estimates -- live outside these official structures, in major cities and rural slums, where, they say, they have received little or no assistance from the government, and have reached the limit of their welcome.

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Experts See Benghazi Controversy Creating 'Remote Control' Diplomacy In Conflict Zones

May 12, 2014

ISTANBUL -- In early January, as a violent rebellion flared across South Sudan, the world's youngest country, the U.S. State Department announced that it would contribute $50 million to emergency programs to alleviate the suffering.

The money, which brought America's humanitarian commitment to the troubled nation to more than $300 million (it is now over $400 million), would be allocated by the U.S. Agency for International Development to local aid organizations and United Nations agencies to help combat food and water shortages, improve medical conditions, and "support reunification of families separated by the fighting,"according to a USAID press release.

It was a welcome gesture for a country in crisis, but there was one small problem: Almost all of the American officials responsible for managing those funds were 7,000 miles away, in a temporary office in Washington, D.C.

In the days prior to the announcement, U.S. officials had been evacuated from the embassy in the capital of Juba, along with the rest of the mission's "non-emergency personnel" -- a move that for the next few months would leave Juba with as few as one American staffer from USAID and a "skeletal" selection of other diplomatic officials.

The decision to empty out the embassy in Juba came amid a frenzy of violence in South Sudan, including rebel attacks on the capital itself, which officials say left embassy staff in grave danger. Four American service members were wounded by gunfire during the evacuation itself.

But the move was also made, several current and former U.S. officials with Africa experience say, in an atmosphere colored by the ongoing political fallout from the September 2012 attacks on a U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, which left four Americans dead and caused a surge of partisan outrage on Capitol Hill.

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MERS Experts Fret About Deadly Virus' Great Unknowns

May 4, 2014

ISTANBUL -- With cases of a virulent and highly fatal pathogen on the rise, includingthe first-known occurrence in the United States, epidemiologists and public health officials say some of their biggest concerns about the disease lie in the basic information that they still don't have about it.

The virus, called Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, or MERS, is closely related to SARS, which spread rapidly across Asia a decade ago, leaving some 800 people dead. So far, MERS, which has a higher fatality rate than SARS and no known vaccine or cure, has proven to be much less of a public health risk because its transmission rate, or how easy it is to spread between humans, has remained low.

But there are anecdotal hints that the disease could be bucking that trend, includinga dramatic uptick in the number of sick patients in Saudi Arabia, where the outbreak is centered. More than 400 people have been infected with the disease so far, almost all of them in the Middle East. The virus, which can cause "severe acute respiratory illness," according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, has killed about one-third of those who have contracted it.

Official health groups like the European Center for Disease Prevention and Controlstill describe the risk of worldwide pandemic as low, but epidemiologists and public health experts say critical blank spots in the scientific understanding of the virus need to be filled in order to be sure.

"We don't know exactly what's happening," said Dr. David Swerdlow, the head of the MERS monitoring team at the U.S. CDC. "I think there are still some questions that are unanswered about how it's transmitted, how commonly it's occurring, what the prevalence is in the population, what is the spectrum of illness."

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Other stories:

Syria Trip Wrap-Up

Joshua Hersh

Two final articles from the Syria trip last month.

Obeen village, Latakia countryside. March, 2014.

Obeen village, Latakia countryside. March, 2014.

Some Syrian Revolutionaries Have Had Enough Of War

April 17, 2014

DAMASCUS, Syria -- Mosab Khalaf remembers the exact moment when he became a revolutionary, and the exact moment when he walked away.

The first came early in the Syrian uprising, in the spring of 2011, when a friend dragged Khalaf, then 19, to a protest in Attal, a town in suburban Damascus. When he arrived, Khalaf was stunned by what he saw.

Near the central town square, security forces dressed in full combat gear had begun to descend on a crowd of several hundred demonstrators, who were marching with flags and chanting anti-government slogans. Khalaf watched as some of the officers grabbed hold of an elderly man, who had fallen behind the retreating protesters, and dragged him back across the square, beating him along the way.

“They were like monsters,” he said. “They were punching him, and he tripped and fell on the ground, and so they started kicking him, yelling at him, ‘Stand up!’ But of course he couldn’t stand up. He tried to, and they would kick him again.”

The second pivotal moment for Khalaf came a few months later, as the peaceful uprising began to lose momentum and some protesters started taking up weapons against government attacks.

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War In Black And White: On The Front Lines With Syria's Army

April 11, 2014

SLONFEH, Syria -- The commander tore off a piece of bread and dipped it into a platter of hummus. Before him sat a spread of simple mountain dishes and grilled meats -- a late lunch after a long day along the northern front of Syria's war.

"I see this war in black and white, angels and devils," said the commander, who, like every military official interviewed in Syria by The Huffington Post during a visit last month, spoke on the condition of anonymity. "I am on the side of white, and they are on the side of black."

The commander, who holds the rank of colonel and has been in the Syrian army for two decades, bore a calm, certain demeanor. He had the jaded aspect of an aging veteran despite only being in his forties, with a young face and soft frame. After service in Lebanon and the Kurdish town of Qamishli, the current three-year-old uprising, he said, has been his toughest fight yet, one that has left him with no doubts about its propriety.

"You can't even imagine the blackness in their minds," he said of the rebels. "That it even still exists in this world, at this time."

The northern front the commander and his troops patrol, in the rugged, craggy hills and valleys of Latakia province, is proving to be one of the war's most stubborn -- and most important.

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In Damascus, Everyone Comes to the Zeriab Cafe

Joshua Hersh

For The New Yorker online:

On a brisk, late-winter evening at Zeriab Café, a popular coffee shop in the Old City of Damascus, a trio of young musicians picked up a guitar, a ney, and an oud and began to play. It was Thursday, the start of the Syrian weekend, and the café was packed with stylish young customers, who broke from their conversations as the music started. Zeriab is small—just five wooden tables pressed close together, a bar counter, and a red sofa. Like any decent café in the Arab world, it is part business establishment, part living room—in this case, the living room is that of Bernar Jomaa, the café’s owner, who, at the moment, was angling between the tables to deliver mugs of hot tea to a group of women seated near the back. Depositing the mugs, he lingered to listen in on their conversation, throwing his head back in laughter. He had poured himself a drink behind the counter—cheap vodka and orange juice—and his mood, like that of the café itself, was elevated.

“See those four ladies over there?” he whispered, after leaving their table. “They work at the hospital. They come here so they can have some calm in the middle of this fucking war.”

Jomaa is thirty-seven years old, with a soft face and shoulder-length black hair that he wears pulled back into a loose ponytail. He is a constant presence at Zeriab, a place he likes to think of as a cultivated refuge from the uncertainties of life in wartime Damascus. When he set out to open the café, in late 2010, it was an unsightly box of crumbling walls and metal cages, which were once used for storage. He scrubbed away the filth, replaced the cages with a salvaged-wood countertop, and filled in missing chunks of wall with old stones and clay, following an ancient technique. As with much in the Old City, the décor consists mainly of exposed rock and dark wood, and it makes the café look like the inside of a wine cellar.

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