Oscar (53)

My name is Oscar Bergamin and I am 53 years old. I was born in the Netherlands. In 1985 I traveled across the Balkan as a journalist and later I went to Syria Afghanistan in that capacity. There I saw how NGO’s operated and I thought: ‘This could be done better.’ So I stopped working as a journalist and started my own relief organisation and worked in the refugee camp of Jarabulus and Bab al-Salam in northern Syria. In Jarabulus for instance, we organised food, stoves and the fuel for the stoves and the ladies in the camp would cook. We were cooking for 4 refugee camps on the Syrian side.

The latter contained approximately 17,000 refugees. There are refugee camps all along the northern border of Syria. They started by housing people in existing stuctures like football stadiums that have been converted to accommodate refugees. Also tents were brought in by the UN. The tents would be placed near an old factory hall.

The people used to think: ‘The war will end soon.’ But after a while, more and more tents were needed. Row after row was added. And toilets. The end of each row would get a Dixie or a latrine. A tent would be set up as a shop, one as a barbershop another as a mosque. A bakery was delivered by Saudi relief aid on a semi-trailer. And school tents were added. A tent was set up for the doctor, which soon needed running water. What was first just a water container would now become a pipeline. As the camp grew fuller and fuller, it started to resemble a city. Until the Turks said: this camp is full. We need a new camp for 20,000 people, roughly two miles away.

In the administration tent, the ‘office’, the families are assigned a numbered tent. The offices knows exactly how many people are in a family and where they are. This is because each family owns a ‘family booklet’.

In the camps people are mostly focused on survival; water, cigarettes, bread. They do help each other and the economy keeps going. And despite the division that splits up families; one may be for Assad, while another is with the rebels or ISIS, people do talk to each other. Syrians are big on self-mockery. People get by with a sense of humour. They make fun of ISIS with songs and on TV. There are even soap operas that portrays a family preparing to flee to Europe. There is lots of singing, often many humorous lyrics. This helps people connect. There are arguments, but a Muchtar, a kind of mayor, takes care of them. That person manages things to some extent. But people want to save themselves first and foremost.

These camps create a whole new society of people who are starting over. All sorts of people living side by side. People from all walks of life and different classes come together in the camps, including those who were outcasts before. An Ex-prostitute could be working as a nurse.

There is a large social network. If you support that network, the network provides for the weaker of the group. The elderly as well as orphaned children can stay with their (remaining) relatives.

Children sing and are cheerful, which is great to see. Lots of things are beautiful and people are very warm (despite their worries), which you notice by the fact that they love talking to you.

I only worked with Syrians and visited these places without pre-announcement. You always need to be aware who is the armed group ruling the area. Right now, I would not be able to walk around in Aleppo…I would be arrested immediately. But once the war is over, I would love to go back.

In the final days of December 2013, the conflict between ISIS and the other rebels started, the border was closed, and the wave of beheadings began. I was in that area too at the time, and the rebels helped us by hiding us in the reeds of the Euphrates for days. We were chased by ISIS and swam across the Euphrates, which has a very strong current. We also lost people there.

There are children didn't go to school for six years. I do not want a ‘lost generation’. That is why I started building schools in the camp so that the children would not have to learn in a tent. Like the school-containers we have build in Turkey Bab al-Salam. The containers have wall sockets and floor coverings. They were painted by illustrator Esther van der Ham with the cultural heritage of Syria, such as Palmyra and the Aleppo citadel. They are highly appreciated in the camps.

In addition to schools we also bring things. Within the foundation, I only work with local organisations. It is gratifying work. Your own quality of life is improved. You also see a lot of gratitude there, more than here."