Follow board member Gayle Tzemach Lemmon's journey through Turkey

Syria, Turkey

December 3, 2015

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  • Syrian refugee children and kids from the host community design murals based on themes (this one being "sport") and then paint them on the walls of the Malumat center.

This week Mercy Corps board member and best-selling author and journalist Gayle Tzemach Lemmon is traveling through Turkey, visiting Mercy Corps programs and seeing first-hand the work our team is doing to help Syrian refugees and their neighbors cope with the ongoing conflict.

Lemmon is also a senior fellow on the Council of Foreign Relations and brings a unique combination of expertise in journalism, foreign policy, business, and international development to her position on the Mercy Corps board.

As she travels through Turkey, she is documenting her reflections on the situation and the resilient people she meets. Below, read more about her experiences.

Thursday, December 3

For a teenage girl who has lost her friends, her home and her school years to a war marked by barrel bombs from the sky and warring foot soldiers on the ground, life as a refugee promises isolation, shrunken opportunity and a battle just for basic survival.

Unless there is a lifeline like Mercy Corps' community center. And that is why 15-year-old Fatima is here today.

Tucked away in a neighborhood in the city of Gaziantep, Turkey, home to many Syrian refugees, the six-story community center offers a home to those who have lost one of their most precious possessions: their community. The center offers a helping hand to a whole slew of students.

Some, like Fatima, are teens who haven’t been in school for more than five years and hunger simply to be in a classroom after war stopped their studies. When offered the chance, Fatima quickly said yes to the chance to read Arabic with a few others near her home and to take English classes in her neighborhood as part of a new pilot program through the center.

She dreams of becoming an English teacher one day and teaching others the skills she so hungers to learn.

Others are little ones who come together for art and music. After years of seeing bloodshed before them and bombs drop from the air, the chance to sit and draw in safety and quiet is a luxury they simply have not had for years. And one they savor.

Fatima's mom joins the women’s club and says it is the happiest she has been in years.

“For me and for my daughter, for our situation emotionally and mentally, this center helps us,” she says. “We were sitting at home, we were in a strange country with no one to understand us. A neighbor told me about this place and I came here and my spirit and my personality changed. I thought there could be a future for us.”

And for her daughter, that future will include study.

“A lot of people come to ask for my daughter’s hand and I say, ‘no, she is going to study,’” she says.

Fatima agrees.

“I want to study,” the teen says. “I want to be an English teacher and then I can teach others kids so that they don’t suffer like I did.”

It is a shot of hope against the backdrop of war that all began with one teenager and her mom stepping into one center on one street in one city as they sought safety from war.

Wednesday, December 2

Both Syrian and Turkish women meet weekly at the Mercy Corps Malumat Center in Turkey to receive information and connect with other members of the community. Photo: Corinna Robbins/Mercy Corps

“They aren’t going there to have a fancy life,” said 27-year-old Roula, of her fellow Syrians now risking their own lives for a chance at rebuilding their lives in Europe or the United States. “They just want to stay alive.”

Roula, who works with Mercy Corps in Gaziantep, Turkey, made her own decision to leave Syria with great hesitation, but at her family’s urging. With the war closing in on the neighborhoods where she had been working, and her family worried about other relatives, they wanted to know that at least one of their children was safe.

But even as she left Syria, her heart and her work remains focused on her home country. Today she oversees programs that help people earn more income, and provide cash, food and clothing assistance to those who need it most.

Soon she will oversee a community program that brings together Turkish and Syrian families for classes and life skills training. She hopes that, most importantly, it will bring together the community they've lost since leaving their country.

“We won’t give up,” Roula said. “We will keep doing what we can do.”

Her determination and motivation moved me. In a war that can feel far away and hard to grasp, Roula’s commitment to her country was personal. And inspirational.

Now entering its fifth year, the war in Syria has displaced millions and claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands. But amid the desperation, Mercy Corps has worked with emerging leaders like Rula and Mirvat, who work each day to help those seeking food and shelter and some semblance of dignity.

Mirvat, a 24-year-old from Aleppo, worked with Mercy Corps in Syria for more than a year, helping those who had lost their homes access sanitation and water to help ward off disease. She would bring hygiene supplies and a helping hand to children and parents traumatized by war. And she won inspiration from the smiles of children with whom she worked.

Mirvat made her own difficult decision to leave Syria only after ISIS entered the area in which she was working. Already her family had left, but she had stayed, committed to working with the people who needed her and Mercy Corps.

Only when the danger she faced made her work impossible to continue did she decide to leave. But she remains in Turkey, very much focused on those inside Syria and bringing them the supplies and help that she can to help them endure the winter ahead.

They are just two members of an incredibly dedicated team determined to offer shards of hope amid war.

How you can help

  • Donate today. Every single contribution helps us provide even more food, water, shelter and support to Syrian refugees and families in crisis around the world.
  • Tell your friends. Share this story and spread the word about the millions of people who need us.
  • Start a campaign. You can turn knowledge into action by setting up a personal fundraising page and asking your friends and family to contribute to our efforts to help Syrians fleeing the war.
  • Stay informed. Read more stories about our work and those we are helping on our Syria crisis response page. You can also learn more about our focus on protecting Syria’s children.