A Syrian family finds peace, even in squalid, crowded camp

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The family of seven is crammed into a single tent in a squalid and overcrowded camp for those who fled the fighting near the capital of Damascus. A shared toilet is up a dirt road. There are few opportunities for work and many are still walking around with their ear injuries.

But the Sweidan family had no choice except to leave their hometown of Douma, where they endured weeks of bombing, near-starvation from a crippling siege and a suspected chemical attack that almost killed their eldest son.

They are now resigned to a life of exile in northern Syria.

"It is not a life really. But better than Douma," said Maysaa, who lives with her husband, their four children and her husband's mother in the tent. "We are relieved there are no airstrikes. We can at least sleep. The children can at least play outside."

The family left the town in the eastern Ghouta region in April as it fell to the government. Maysaa's husband was a member of an armed group that controlled Douma before the Syrian forces moved in.

Now they all share a small tent on the edge of the camp in al-Bab, a Turkish-controlled town whose population of about 7,000 when it was controlled by the Islamic State group until February 2017 has grown to about 300,000, according to Turkish officials. Most of those are displaced from other parts of Syria.

The tent is divided with sheets to create a changing room and a sleeping area for the mother and father. During the day, that area is used to store blankets and pillows. The grandmother and children — the youngest being 21 months old — sleep in the open area.

Maysaa said the only time she leaves the tent is to go to the shared toilet up the dirt road.

Fathiya, the 61-year-old grandmother, said she tried unsuccessfully to get a separate tent in order to give her son and his wife some privacy. That remark brought shy giggles from both Fathiya and Maysaa.

"It is like I am holding them hostage," Fathiya said.

But the whole camp is overcrowded.

Some 5,000 people from Ghouta arrived here in April, replacing others who had been displaced from the provinces in eastern Syria. A sign at the camp's gate reads: "Sons of the Eastern (province) welcome their brothers from eastern Ghouta."

Al-Bab is one of a number of towns that have become part of territory in northwestern Syria now controlled by Turkey and the Syrian fighters it supports, after they chased IS militants as well as Kurdish fighters from the area. The last town captured earlier this year was Afrin, after the Turkish-backed Syrians seized it from the Kurdish fighters.

Of a total of 66,000 displaced from Ghouta to northern Syria, about 20,000 are in al-Bab and other towns controlled by Turkey. The rest headed to Idlib, also in northwestern Syria but still under opposition control with a strong presence for an al-Qaida-linked group.

With the new arrivals to al-Bab, the camp of more than 280 tents grew to include 44 new communal tents, each housing up to 50 people, with men and women living separately.

Charity organizations distribute meals every day. There is no room for a kitchen and no money to buy extra food or treat those wounded by war.

While the family was still in besieged Douma earlier this spring, Maysaa gave what little food her husband brought home all to her children. As a result, she began losing her balance and fainting from hunger.

"She wouldn't eat, to let her children eat," the grandmother said. During the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, the 27-year-old Maysaa is not fasting so she can try to boost her diminished health.

Then came a suspected chemical gas attack on April 7 that medical workers said killed more than 40 people in Douma. The town was the final target of the government's campaign to seize back control of the eastern Ghouta suburbs of Damascus from rebels after seven years of revolt. Militants gave up the town days after the alleged attack.

The Sweidans' eldest son, 11-year-old Abdurrahman, was among those affected. He said he vividly remembers being brought back to consciousness.

"They kept knocking on my heart. ... They put something big on my heart and they kept knocking on my heart to get rid of the chemicals. They kept knocking me on my chest so I can come back," he said, speaking with the enthusiasm of a child who has just learned a new game.

Maysaa said she had no idea where he was until a stranger pointed out a child who was unaccompanied at a medical unit. She said she recalled the stranger telling her, "God saved him.

Western powers accused the Russia-backed Syrian government of using chemical gas in Douma, and the U.S., France and Britain bombed government sites in retaliation. Syria and its ally, Russia, deny that chemical weapons were used. Inspectors from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons collected samples from Douma to try to establish whether a chemical weapon was used. It has not issued a report yet.

The Sweidans want to move out of the camp and are looking for a home in al-Bab. They have no intention of going back to government-controlled Douma.

"Those last four days were worse than the seven years of war," said the grandmother, Fathiya.