He Bought Them Lunch. They Learned How To Read.


Reyhanli, Turkey — Early in the morning and late at night, sounds of shelling from across the mountain disrupt the seemingly tranquil border town.

“If you’d been here a few nights earlier, when the Russians were bombing, you would have felt the whole ground shake,” Waled Dabak tells me inside his Reyhanli home. “The entire city felt it.”

Located only a few miles away from the Syrian border, the small town’s population has more than doubled in size as widespread violence and aerial bombardments continue to push Syrians into Turkey.

The Reyhanli park and pond. Photograph by Hiba Dlewati

39-year-old Dabbak moved to Reyhanli in 2013. Despite being a member of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, he faced persecution in Damascus for his work supporting internally displaced families from the war. At least 50 Red Crescent volunteers have been killed in the Syrian conflict, including one of Dabak’s brothers, who was detained and tortured to death by the regime. When his other brother – also a volunteer – was detained, the former trainer and aid worker first fled to Lebanon, and then moved to Istanbul. He quit his job with an opposition-aligned NGO one month later.

“I love field work. I can’t sit behind a desk and laptop,” Dabak said.

For several months he would cross the border daily into Atmeh Camp, home to approximately 30,000 internally displaced people, conducting research for development projects. Working for a while with an NGO based near the border, Dabak used his 11 years of experience with the Red Crescent to train Syrian youth here in psychosocial support, first aid, and disaster management.

Walking around the small town, Dabak began to notice the increasing phenomenon of Syrian children begging on the streets.

“I would pass by them everyday and just talk with them, be their friend,” said —> Read More