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COM Alum Reports on Syrian Refugee Crisis

Turkey-based Aljazeera news editor sees border transformed

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Gizem Yarbil, Deputy News Editor, Aljazeera Turk, Syrian refugee crisis, Syrian refugee camps, Southern Turkey

As deputy news editor of Aljazeera Turk, Gizem Yarbil (COM’03) has been reporting on the surge in Syrian refugees fleeing to southern Turkey. Photo courtesy of Gizem Yarbil

The crisis in Syria has been worsening by the day. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, more than two million refugees have fled the country for neighboring nations. More than 450,000 are registered in Turkey, with at least half that number living in refugee camps, many of them near the Turkish-Syrian border. The deafening boom of grenades and the crack of mortar fire reverberates in these border towns as more of Syria is engulfed by its almost three-year-old civil war.

Triggered by a 2011 public uprising against the rule of President Bashar al-Assad during what was optimistically referred to as the Arab Spring, the raging conflict has claimed 100,000 lives, according to the United Nations, and led to a deepening refugee crisis. As deputy news editor of Aljazeera Turk, the new Turkish news channel about to be launched by the Qatar-based international news network Aljazeera, Gizem Yarbil has closely observed the ways the crisis is transforming the border between the two countries.

Yarbil (COM’03), a former New York producer with PBS’s now defunct WorldFocus and a documentary filmmaker, sees the conflict as an intractable, poorly understood tangle of factions. “It’s a mess,” says Yarbil, who believes that the Syrian war is destined to drag on for years whether the United States intervenes or not.

BU Today met up with Yarbil in Istanbul last week, at the popular Ara Café, not far from Taksim Square, where Turkish protesters and police had clashed the previous evening. She had just attended a meeting with fellow editors and producers for Aljazeera about coverage on the ground in Syria. Her team has been working with other Aljazeera crews from Arab countries and the Balkans to cover the crisis. A native of Turkey’s capital Ankara, she has made several trips to report on refugee-flooded areas along the Turkish border with northern Syria.

“We know the language and the landscape of the border,” says Yarbil, who recently returned from her second trip to Ceylanpinar, in southeastern Turkey, where she reported in a flak jacket and helmet. Because journalists’ risk of dying in Syria is so great (an estimated 153 have been killed since the conflict began), even major news organizations are increasingly relying on information and videos from “citizen reporters,” she says, acknowledging the difficulty of verifying information coming from sources likely to be allied with either the government or the rebels. But she thinks the story of the growing flood of refugees and the lack of space and services to accommodate them is a powerful human story that can and should be reported accurately.

Yarbil, who earned a master’s degree from the Columbia School of Journalism after graduating from the College of Communication with a degree in film, spoke with BU Today about the Syrian refugee crisis, Turkey’s humanitarian dilemma, and what it’s like to report from a war zone.

BU Today: Can you describe what you’ve seen in these border towns?

Yarbil: One of the towns I covered, Ceylanpinar, used to be one city, but after World War II it was split, and now the Turkish-Syrian border runs through the middle of it. So many people have relatives on the other side. When I was there a bomb exploded about 650 feet from us. In another town I visited, you can see the border fence and Syrians walking around the residential area on the other side. The government forces drop bombs there at night. Right away, you can see women and men with their children on their shoulders running into Turkey.

Is Turkey still letting these refugees in?

Before, the refugees could just walk through the border, but now it’s really hard for them to pass into Turkey. Those allowed in are given temporary Turkish ID numbers, but most are people who have relatives in Turkey and they will stay with them, sometimes as many as three families living together in a small flat. Some of the wealthier refugees go to Istanbul or other big cities, where they rent their own apartments. There’s such a big demand that rents in the borders towns have risen significantly in the last year.

Ceylanpinar Refugee Camp, Turkey, Syrian refugee camp

The Ceylanpinar Refugee Camp in southeastern Turkey is home to approximately 12,000 Syrian refugees. Photo courtesy of Voice of America News

Describe the refugee camps for us.

It’s very hard for journalists to get inside the refugee camps, but the ones I’ve seen don’t look too bad. Many refugees live in containers; they’re like very big boxes or trailers, and some even have air conditioning. Other camps are just tents, though, and in the winter there were incidents when the tents caught on fire from people trying to stay warm, and refugees died. As a human being, every time I go to the border I feel really upset. Most of these people left everything behind, and most have had at least one person in their family die.

How might U.S. or other outside intervention affect the refugee crisis?

If there’s a big war, which I think will happen if the United States decides to bomb Syria, there will be a massive influx of refugees, a big problem for Lebanon and Jordan as well as for Turkey. Remember, Aleppo is just about 25 miles from the Turkish town of Kilis; imagine if the United States bombed Aleppo. And you just can’t let everyone in; you need to do ID searches and take security measures.

Is there violence inside the camps?

It’s not a huge issue, but there were reports of fighting between Sunni and Shia refugees.

Now that many news organizations refuse to send reporters into Syria, how are they getting their information?

Citizen journalism has become a big part of coverage from Syria, but the information is less and less trustworthy. Most of these so-called reporters are associated with different warring factions. Every journalist tries to cultivate trustworthy sources, and the networks must verify hundreds of videos. Aljazeera has a Syria desk and good sources on the ground and online. But to be honest, everyone realizes that at some point you can be fooled. It’s more and more difficult to get the truth out of Syria.

Is it hard to get a new angle on the story?

That’s a big challenge for journalists. The human story was the most important for a long time, but it isn’t changing, so it’s hard to find a new story. It seems like all the stories have been done, and like the coverage now from Iraq, the death tolls are reported almost like a sports score. Most journalists feel like the danger of going into Syria is too great and no longer worth the risk, especially since there’s a lack of new stories. The most interesting story I’ve seen recently was a BBC report about daily life going on in the center of Damascus. You see people out swimming or sitting at cafés like they’re in Paris.

Do you think the United States and other Western nations have a good grasp on who the warring factions are?

It’s a muddle. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry talks as if everything is clear-cut. Something has to be done, but it’s just so messy. I attended an Aljazeera forum in Doha with journalists, academics, and aid workers. And there was one man from an NGO in Syria who was asked, “What is the way out?” His response was, “There is no way out.”

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Susan Seligson, Senior Writer for BU Today and Bostonia
Susan Seligson

Susan Seligson can be reached at sueselig@bu.edu.

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