After spending six months in a Syrian prison, Hasan Othman won the election to become “mayor” of a Syrian refugee camp in Turkey. His supporters need Othman as much as Othman needs them.
On a cold January morning, a greying light slants over low-lying hills into the yard of Nizip refugee camp in southeast Turkey’s Gaziantep province. Children kick a rain-sodden soccer ball while women walk into container bathrooms with buckets full of clothes.
Behind a cluster of containers, Hasan Othman stands outside his tent. A sharp-nosed, anxious-looking man of forty, Othman has much to look forward to. Last summer, people in the camp elected him to be their mayor. The election was organised by the Turkish government, which aims to identify complex issues troubling Syrians through a body of refugee leaders.
Othman starts his day early each morning by making the rounds across his block of 120 families living in tarpaulin tents.
“I gave myself a word that I will help all the people,” Othman says. “It’s not easy at all, I mean the responsibility to manage people, but someone has to do it.”
Othman came to Turkey five years ago. Fighting between Syrian regime leader Bashar al Assad and rebels groups had entered its second year. The war had entered its most brutal stages, with mass killings and disappearances becoming a norm.
Othman supported the armed uprising led by the Free Syrian Army (FSA), which continues to be steadfast in its armed resistance against Assad. Since he owned a chain of clothing stores and had a good financial standing, he donated to the FSA on regular basis.
In the summer of 2012, forces loyal to Assad imprisoned him without any trial. He spent his first six months in a cell as big as a yoga mat. Sometimes, due to the heavy influx of new prisoners, five to ten people were stuffed into the cell.
“It was suffocating,” Othman says. “When anybody got sick they did not help him. If anyone died, they threw him out. You could go to the bathroom only one time [a night], and that’s it. There was no food, nothing noteworthy. We could bathe only once in two months.”
Othman comes across as a cheerful, generous man who offers Syrian coffee to his guests, but when he talks about his six-month long imprisonment, his face turns grim, as if he wants to avoid recounting the dark days of his past.
When he moved to the camp along with his wife and three children upon his arrival, he began volunteering much of his time to organising his fellow refugees. He took up a shovel to clear the snow, dug holes to block rainwater from coming into the tents. And he met with the camp management to discuss the issues he couldn’t fix. From helping outsiders to visit their families inside the camp, to securing separate tents for families that couldn’t fit into one shelter, he often succeeded in convincing the Turkish authorities to solve the community’s problems. And his status in the community as a graduate in Islamic law also meant many in the camp began to rely on him as an arbiter into their disputes:
“For example, when one neighbour threw water at someone’s tent, I intervened to make peace. Or when two neighbours were fighting after their kids get into soccer brawls.”
Othman soon became an unofficial representative of a cluster of tents in the camp. Last summer, his supporters nominated him for the mayoral elections without informing him. “I was touched,” he says. “It was good to know that they thought of me so highly.”
Back in Syria, when he sold clothes, he had no interest in leading people or contesting in electoral politics. He grew disillusioned with the country’s presidential elections right from his early 20s. After graduating with a degree in Islamic law from a university in Idlib province, he applied for a job at a government-run electrical company.
“They didn’t even accept my application,” he says. “It was a small clerical post. The applications of the people who were way less educated than me were accepted, but not mine.”
Othman believes that his application was turned down because of his affiliation with Sunni Islam. Those who belonged to the Alawite sect, a minority group with its own understanding of Islam, could apply without hindrance. The hiring in government offices, he says, was skewed in favour of the Alawites. The people from other sects had to either make peace with rejections or secure such jobs by paying hefty bribes to government officials, he says.
In the early 2000s, Othman moved to Damascus and started a small clothing shop in Barzeh, a middle-class neighbourhood south of Damascus. “Allah blessed the business. It prospered,” he says. A decade later, he owned several clothes shops from Barzeh to neighbouring Qaboon.
By the spring of 2011, public resentment against Assad had reached a tipping point. With the outbreak of so-called Arab Spring protests across Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, Syrians felt inspired to challenge the decades-long rule of Assad, in which people were imprisoned for expressing dissent even at a personal level. Men were tossed into jail even for forwarding emails that mocked Assad. Travel bans on dissidents were commonplace, and torture in police custody was rampant.
Othman participated in the first wave of anti-Assad protests in April 2011. As the country descended into civil war within a year, some of the dissidents began to take up arms either to defend themselves from Assad’s soldiers, or to free the areas completely from them. Othman donated money to the Free Syrian Army.
In the winter of 2012, Assad’s soldiers picked up Othman outside his house. Though Othman refuses to speak about how he was tortured, he says he suffered from “internal bleeding” for two weeks following his release.
He knew some lieutenants in Assad’s military, who used to buy clothes from one of his shops in Qaboon. One of them cut a side deal with top military officials to secure Othman’s release. “I paid 500,000 Syrian Pounds ($2,330) and got out of the prison,” he says.
In the summer of 2012, Othman paid a smuggler to take him and his family into Gaziantep, Turkey. His plan was simple: he thought the war would end in a few months and he could return home. A year passed and the war was still on. Then another, and another. “It’s been six years now. We don’t know how long we’ll be stuck here,” he says.
He recently learnt that his house and shops have been smashed into ruins by Assad’s air bombings. The thought of spending the rest of his life as a refugee often unsettles him. He has learnt to fight off such thoughts by patrolling his block and meeting with his supporters.
“It’s a good thing to have our own mayor,” Sameer Daib, a resident of Nizip camp and Othman’s neighbour, says. “But these mayors have no powers. They only act as liaison between us and the Turkish government. It would be nice if they had some powers.”
At the camp, a senior official of the Disaster and Emergency Management Agency (AFAD), a federal ministry which oversees refugee welfare, says that sometimes government officials struggle to understand the refugees because of social and cultural differences. It can therefore help them to have an interlocutor to better facilitate communication.
“For instance, you can’t show love to a Syrian kid in front of his mother,” the official says. “Some people see it as if you are trying to hit on the mother by using her child as a proxy. We understood these things through refugee mayors.”
Most of the people in the camp have lost someone in the war. They know no one could replace the deceased, but they do aspire to repair their broken homes. Instead of relying upon free food and the monthly stipend of $25 granted by the Turkish government to each refugee, many seek work outside the camps. Many of them have opened small shops outside their containers or tarpaulin tents, where they sell bread, Syrian coffee, cigarettes and milk.
Othman encourages young Syrians to study in refugee schools. He also counsels victims of trauma — they need Othman as much as Othman needs them.
“I see a depressed person almost every day. I tell him that one day we will go home, that if he has lost anyone the person has gone to heaven and so on, I try to make him happy,” Othman says. “When they start feeling better, I feel good, too, and I forget about what I have been through.”