Atmeh Camp, Idlib, Syria (Syrian-Turkish border), March 2013—‘Where are you from?’ Yaser of the Maram Foundation asks one of the dozens of children peering shyly at the gathering of teachers and aid workers come to formally ‘inaugurate’ Madrasat al-Awda: the ‘School of Return’: an affair of four small tents.
The little girl’s name is Hania. She is no more than four years old and, like so many of over 10,000 children in Atmeh camp, is barefoot in the quagmire of mud. There are new arrivals every day, some days thousands at once from the latest village to suffer aerial bombing or shelling. When I visit, Hania is barely older than a conflict that just turned two years old. She will never remember anything before it began. Putting on a big smile, she, like so many of the other children, answers the question by reflexively pointing across the mud towards her tent. ‘No—not where are you from in the camp!’ Yaser responds, pained, not scolding: ‘Where are you from in Syria?’
Like many in the camp, Hania is from Kafr Zeita, in the Hama countryside. Look it up on YouTube and the first result reads: ‘Massacre in Hama—Kafr Zeita—Civilians Burned Alive.’ The footage dates from June 2012, shortly after Hania and the other children and their families in this corner of the camp landed here, on the rolling slopes of an olive grove on the Syrian-Turkish border, without shelter, water or electricity, no school or health care, and no possibility of entering Turkey: the Turkish government has, for now, stopped letting these and some 100,000 other Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) cross the border to become refugees. For sixty-five years Palestinian children in their own refugee camps have been taught to think and say they are not from the camp where they and their parents have spent their whole lives, but from the village they have never seen. It is far too soon to fear the same fate for Hania, but the echoes are foreboding.