GAZIANTEP, Turkey—Yasser and Mahmoud, two cousins aged 12 and 10, respectively, stop at the entrance of the central mosque in Gaziantep as others hurriedly step inside for early morning prayer on the eve of Eid-ul-Adha, the Muslim holy feast of sacrifice.
Wearing shabby trousers and faded shirts, Yasser and Mahmoud arrange locally produced candies and chocolates in medium sized cartons. They station themselves at two different doors of the majestic mosque to attract customers.
“I will take home my mother’s favorite sweets and some apples,” says Yasser, whose family of eight migrated from the Syrian town of Latakia 10 months ago. His father, Radwan Hassan, preferred not to live in a refugee camp set up in Gaziantep, a booming industrial city in southeastern Turkey, instead opting to live in an abandoned building with a caved-in roof.
Hassan is teaming up with a local butcher to slaughter animals and make some money. The boys don’t know where Hassan is for the Eid prayer.
Mahmoud was recently orphaned after his father was killed by a sniper in August. Hassan, Mahmoud’s uncle and Yasser’s father, brought him and his mother along with them to Turkey.
Yasser and Mahmoud briskly walk to a bakery and buy a kilogram of baklava. Carrying their bounty, the boys walk for half an hour to their impoverished neighborhood.
They enter a dilapidated, two-story building. The family sleeps in a 20-square-foot room devoid of windows. Four mattresses, one wooden bed, three chairs, and countless flies fill the humid and cold room. The toilet has neither a door nor a roof.
Hassan’s wife, Noura, has prepared adas, a typical Syrian lentil soup, and boiled rice for breakfast and lunch.
“Unlike last year, I can’t cook mansaf (meat and rice with almonds) and serve my family with ka’ek (a traditional sweet). Whatever we eat here is not charity, but my husband and sons earn it with their hard work,” she explains with pride.
Dressed in gray scarf and black abaya, she says her children have two sets of clothes and only one pair of shoes each.
Noura, who used to be a nurse in a private Latakia hospital, had never imagined that her children wouldn’t wear new clothes on Eid. Amina, her one-year-old daughter, has a cold. Her skin looks pale and dry, and she’s alarmingly underweight. The temperature here often falls below freezing.
As the infant cries for milk, Noura pours lukewarm Turkish black tea down her throat with a spoon.
“My breast milk dried, probably due to lack of good food and our testing circumstances. We can either feed the entire family or provide her formula milk,” she said, tears rolling down her cheeks.
Before the family left Latakia, one of the country’s few pro-Assad cities, both had lost 16 close family members either to air raids or artillery fire.
“Prior stepping out of my home, I had laid only one condition before my husband. And he accepted: That we won’t beg for our shelter and food. We won’t live in camps, but earn our living,” Noura said.