1. After more than a decade working as a brick mason in cities far from home, Ahmed Idriss saved enough money to build a five-room house in his village in northern Syria.
Then he found a wife and started a family in the carefully crafted home, surrounded by the rose bushes he’d always imagined planting when he settled down. Syria’s war hit the village last year. Artillery shells destroyed Idriss’ house, and blasts from the bombardment gave his newborn child a fatal heart attack.
2. Last November, like thousands of Syrians fleeing the carnage, Idriss arrived with his wife and surviving son in Akcakale, a border town in southern Turkey.
The town sits right on the border, and stray bullets from the fighting sometimes bore into homes. Last year, five civilians were killed by an errant artillery shell. Refugees like Idriss have meanwhile redefined the area, filling local houses and apartments and pouring into a sprawling refugee camp.
3. Idriss and his family found a spot in the camp, Turkey’s largest, filled well over capacity with some 27,000 people living among 5,000 tents.
Turkey has been strained badly by the refugees streaming across its border. About 200,000 are spread across 21 camps, and another 400,000 registered refugees live in towns and cities. More are residing in the country unofficially.
4. Idriss felt lucky to be in the camp. Akcakale, like many camps in Turkey, is often full.
5. Some refugees, like the family that opened the popular Syrian restaurant pictured here, have been successful in Akcakale.
But Syrian families can also be found living on the street, hoping for a spot in the camp to open. One Turkish resident recounted recently finding a woman and her children along the roadside and putting them up himself — “because it’s cold now, especially in the night.”
6. One recent evening just across the street from the camp, some of these families were huddled under blankets on the rocky ground.
A man surrounded by young children said he’d been waiting in vain for months for a spot to open.
7. “The people are starving, and we are begging them to let us inside,” he said.
8. Idriss sought out the camp for the same reason many Syrians do — the area has close ties to Syria, and many residents speak Arabic, making the newcomers feel more at home.
9. The camp is arranged in rows of white tents, usually tall enough to crouch inside, and outfitted with power and electric heaters.
Services include a hospital and school. Many residents leave for work in the mornings and return at night. “This is like a town on its own,” one camp official said.
10. Residents can shop at rows of stores and supermarkets using special debit cards.
11. Inside the crowded tents, they try to recreate some semblance of home — cooking traditional Syrian food, like the woman making sambousek here, and keeping small televisions tuned to Arabic-language TV.
12. But the conflict just across the border is a constant presence.
Many families in the camp have lost relatives to the war, and some residents commute into Syria to pursue humanitarian work or take up arms. Occasionally, they don’t return. Sara Alloush, a woman in her 70s, cried as she recounted the devastation. “Only God can help us,” she said.
13. Residents also describe a crippling sense of limbo as time ticks by.
14. A lawyer named Abdul Razzaq Qaleh sat in his tent with a son who hoped to follow in his footsteps but had been forced to flee Syria during his first year of law school, and now worked in a local cell phone shop.
“The Turkish people call us their guests,” Qaleh said. “And guests should one day go back to their homes.”
15. When he arrived at his tent in Akcakale, Idriss, the brick mason from northern Syria, found the ground full of rocks and reeking puddles.
His wife refused to go inside, but he told her, “I will make it a palace. Just wait.”
16. He removed the rocks and shoveled away the water, and he leveled the land and covered it with a layer of cement. Then he erected two tents on the small plot, making one into a sitting room.
17. He also rigged up an irrigation system that brought running water to the new yard and filled it with flowers and plants.
18. The pigeons he now keeps on the roof tapped overhead as he sipped tea inside the sitting room on Sunday.
Idriss said he had no choice but to make his Akcakale residence as nice as he could—this was his home now.