Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Thousands Overwhelm Syrian Refugee Camp — Most Are The Families Of ISIS Fighters


The U.S. and Syrian Kurdish forces have driven ISIS out of its last remaining territory in Syria. They declared victory last week. Now tens of thousands of the women and children, the families of ISIS fighters, who fled are in a remote camp in northeastern Syria. The new arrivals have stretched the camp to what aid organizations call the breaking point. NPR's Jane Arraf visited the camp, and she joins us now from northeastern Syria. Hi, Jane.


CHANG: So can you just describe - what does this camp look like right now?

ARRAF: So like most camps, it's got a big fence around it, it's got gates with armed guards, but that's kind of where the similarity stops because it is just absolutely packed with people. It was built for 20,000 people, and now it's got almost 80,000.

CHANG: Oh, wow.

ARRAF: It's been raining a lot, so - yeah - it's incredibly muddy, and everywhere you go, there are hundreds and hundreds of people, mostly women and children, lined up to get things. There isn't enough food. There isn't enough medicine. There aren't even enough tents.

CHANG: There aren't? So some people are just lying on the mud?

ARRAF: So up until recently, they were lying out in the open. Now the U.N. and others in charge of the camp have brought in really big tents. But the problem is, they're expecting more people. When we were there, they were handing out rations that they give out every month or so. And there's a guy with a loudspeaker, and he's calling out names and tent numbers.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Foreign language spoken).

ARRAF: But there isn't enough for everybody. I met one woman among a big group of women who said they hadn't had any in three months. Things are getting desperate.

CHANG: It sounds incredibly desperate. Is the atmosphere very tense right now?

ARRAF: It is, in some places, quite tense. There was a Syrian woman who was shouting that they're being treated like animals, not people.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Foreign language spoken).

ARRAF: She had been waiting for money from relatives for days, and those relatives were just across the gate, but the people in charge of the camp had shut down access for them. There was a riot there recently because of bad conditions. There have been fights between the Syrians and the Iraqis in the camps. It is a desperate situation. There have been children dying there - malnutrition. And both the Syrians and the Iraqis are kind of united in their hatred of the foreign camp residents. And in fact, you actually see some of those residents, the foreigners, walking around with armed guards to protect them.

CHANG: Wait, where are these foreigners from?

ARRAF: They're from almost everywhere - 50 countries. There are very few Americans, and the ones there are tend to be kept in the smaller, better-managed camps. There are an awful lot of Turkish women, a lot of Russian women, a lot of Chinese, Eastern European. And when you talk to them and say, so why did you go, they say, a lot of them, that they just followed their husbands.

There was this one woman from Trinidad and Tobago, and I met her when she was looking for her 16-year-old son. She was separated from him after she dressed him in women's clothing, and they got out of there, and then they came to the camp. And she said, look, I was a convert to Islam, and I married this guy, and two days later, I was on a plane, and we were in Syria, and I didn't know what I was getting into.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Because I don't understand this war. I don't understand what's happening here. How could I send my child to die? Me, marrying this man, I've destroyed my child's life.

ARRAF: So she also said she felt like she was in danger because she was one of the very few women who wasn't completely covered. She was just wearing a red scarf over her hair.

CHANG: So what's likely to happen to all these people crammed into this one camp?

ARRAF: Well, that is the thing. Now, this is in a remote part of Syria that is run by Kurdish Syrians. It's a region that's not internationally recognized, so it's difficult to get aid there. But the Kurdish leadership is appealing both for international support for this camp - because there isn't a lot of aid coming through because it has to go through the Syrian government, to a large extent - but also, they want other countries to take these people back. The Iraqi government is making plans to take back families from Iraq, but as for a lot of the other countries, they just don't know what to do with these people.

CHANG: That's NPR's Jane Arraf, joining us from the northeastern Syrian city of Qamishli. Thank you so much, Jane.

ARRAF: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jane Arraf covers Egypt, Iraq, and other parts of the Middle East for NPR News.