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On the Syrian Border, an Orphanage Provides Hope for the Future

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On the outskirts of Reyhanli, a Turkish city on the Syrian border, horses and mopeds roam the streets almost as frequently as cars. The metropolis slowly dissipates, revealing sweeping stretches of open fields that gently roll into mountains before vanishing into the clouds lining the horizon. The scenery is spectacular, yet it is overshadowed by the clusters of refugee tents scattered across the picture, a subtle reminder of the conflict raging just across the border that has killed over 150,000 people and displaced 9.1 million more.

On the edge of these fields sits a two-storied cement building. It used to be a restaurant, but is currently being converted into an orphanage for Syrian children who have lost their parents in the war. Dust floats across the car windshield as we pull into the driveway, and the steady thump of a sledgehammer echoes out from the building.

Yakzan Shishakly is one of the co-founders of the Maram Foundation, the organization responsible for the construction of the orphanage. Born in Damascus, he left Syria after graduating high school to study in the United States. During his time in college, he started his own air conditioning business, eventually dropping out of school to work full time as the company took off. By the start of the Syrian revolution Shishakly had acquired dual U.S. citizenship and was doing quite well for himself in Houston, Texas.

Yet as he watched his native country descend into civil war, something pulled him back to Syria.

"I (started) to come volunteer for a week, maybe ten days at a time," he says. "But as time went on I found myself staying longer and longer. A friend finally told me, 'you do realize you've moved?' That's when I realized I really had."

By August 2012, Shishakly was in charge of the Atmeh refugee camp, which sits just across the border from Reyhanli and is visible from the windows of the orphanage. "At first it was just a few hundred people," he says. But within a year the numbers had swelled above 25,000. At this point, he was forced to give up control of the camp. "We had no budget," he recalls, "and there was no way to manage it because it became a town." Maram still runs Atmeh's school and women's center, but the camp's other administrative tasks are now divided between several aid organizations.

While Maram also delivers food aid, clothing and accepts "whatever donations or projects that come to us that we feel like we are capable of doing," there seems to be a particular passion surrounding the orphanage. The owner of the restaurant, a middle aged Turkish man who goes by Abu Ahmed, has rented out the building at a reduced rate and allowed Maram to completely gut it and transform it into a home. He sits on the terrace with his wife, watching the construction and occasionally bringing water and soda to the workers. He is reticent in conversation, and when asked about his motivations simply shrugs, unsure why he is being asked a question with such an obvious answer. "Because it's for orphans," he says.

Funding for the orphanage has come from private donors, says Shishakly, but as of now Maram has only procured enough money for the construction -- scheduled to be completed in about two months -- and half a year of management. Yet amid the turbulent circumstances of the war, even this is a blessing, and Shishakly is confident they will be able to find more capital.

While there is already another orphanage in Reyhanli, Maram has had no trouble finding occupants. "We already have children from inside (Syria) ready to come out," says Mayan Atassi, another one of the co-founders. "There are also a lot already here, and the orphanage will not be enough for every child we have." She moves quickly through the house, directing staff and engineers as she talks. They spend hours pouring over every corner of the building, organizing the layout and planning the next few weeks of construction.

Included will be a kitchen, a recreation room, and a psychological support center to help the children cope with the enormity of what they have been through. Though schools in Reyhanli are filled past capacity because of the refugees flowing across the border, Shishakly says they will be able to educate the orphans by providing material support to local schools, thus enabling them to enroll the children there.

As the day winds on, Atassi finally takes a break. She pulls a chair onto the shady part of the porch, lights a cigarette, and cracks open one of Abu Ahmed's Pepsis. Cautiously, she begins to talk about the future. "I hate the idea of an orphanage," she says. "I want to make it like a home. That's why we are calling it bayti (meaning "my home" in Arabic)."

She grows silent after this, glancing down at her drink. Perhaps tomorrow's challenges have temporarily checked her optimism, or maybe she is simply tired from the day's work. A cool breeze calmly floats across the gravel driveway, cutting across piles of dirt and crumbled cinder blocks. The earth awakens lazily, dust swirling up from the ground towards the house.

"We are going to turn all this into a garden," says Atassi, waving her hand towards the driveway. Looking out over the barren property, it seems like an impossible task. But as we leave, I notice a single red rose blooming among a small patch of weeds. It twists up towards the sky, capturing every bit of sunlight it can. The sledgehammer thumps. The car door slams. And the garden grows, one flower at a time.