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A Welcoming Way Station For Syrians Fleeing Home

Beit Qamishlo is a modest house in southern Turkey that caters to Syrian exiles seeking temporary refuge. It also hosts frequent discussions on Syria's future. Here, Malik Dagestani (center), a former political prisoner in Syria, talks about his detention in the 1980s and 1990s.
Kelly McEvers
Beit Qamishlo is a modest house in southern Turkey that caters to Syrian exiles seeking temporary refuge. It also hosts frequent discussions on Syria's future. Here, Malik Dagestani (center), a former political prisoner in Syria, talks about his detention in the 1980s and 1990s.

It's called Beit Qamishlo, or the House of Qamishlo. It's named after a city in northeastern Syria, though the house isn't even in Syria — it's just across the border in southern Turkey.

The house is humble, made of concrete blocks, with tile floors. Arabic slogans are taped on the walls: "Beit Qamishlo is a house for everyone," "It's a window to Syria's future," "Under one roof we plant life together and freedom."

More than just ideas, Beit Qamishlo is also a hostel, a place for Syrians who've escaped their country to crash until they find more permanent digs. It's an education center where young Syrian refugees take English and art classes on the weekends. And it's a performance space, where readings, speeches and debates fill the night.

On one recent night, the topic was "Tales of a Prisoner," a recurring series featuring men and women from an older generation who had opposed the Syrian government.

Young Syrians huddled to listen on couches and plastic chairs in a spare and smoky room warmed by an electric heater. A videographer records the event for Beit Qamishlo's archive.

Former Prisoners Share Their Stories

Malik Dagestani, a self-described communist who opposed the regime of Hafez Assad, the father of the current president, Bashar Assad, tells how he was detained for nine years, beginning in 1987, for his political activity.

Dagestani says he was beaten and tortured so badly in the first days of his detention that he couldn't even stand for weeks. He was eventually transferred to a prison that included thousands of others like him.

A year later, he was able to pay someone to smuggle in letters. That's when he first saw a picture of his second daughter, who was born while he was away.

To pass the time in prison, Dagestani and his colleagues studied English, fashioned musical instruments out of wood scraps, made candles from marmalade jars and put on plays.

When he was released in the mid-1990s, he didn't know what a fax machine was. He was flabbergasted by the Windows operating system. The day of his release Dagestani called his house, but only his youngest daughter was at home — the one born while he was in prison.

"This is your father," he said.

"Who?" she replied.

"Your father," he repeated.

"Who?" she said again.

He then called his older daughter. He told her he had been released from prison, but she didn't know what to do and just handed the phone to someone else.

Lessons Learned In Prison

Like so many Syrians, the founder of Beit Qamishlo did time in prison, too. He's a jolly man with an infectious grin who goes by the name Abu Raman.

Abu Raman's latest detention came just as Syria's uprising began back in March 2011. There he met activists and political organizers from around the country.

Abu Raman says he founded Beit Qamishlo to repeat what he learned in prison — that nationalism isn't something that comes from the state but rather something you learn from each other.

He started the series of talks by former prisoners so the older generation could finally speak out about what had happened to them. He hopes young activists who crash here can learn from people like Malik Dagestani.

An activist asks Dagestani if he thinks it was worth it to suffer for what he believed in, especially now that the new generation has risen up with no intention of turning back.

If we knew how many people would die, he says, we might have told them not to start this uprising. Now the men with guns are the heroes. How will we go back from that?

It's people like Dagestani and places like Beit Qamishlo that Western countries say they hope to support. But so far, Abu Raman says he relies on donations from friends.

He says the house costs about $400 a month in rent, and about $400 more in heat and electricity. But he says the money is about to run out. He doesn't even know if he has enough to make next month's payments.

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Kelly McEvers is a two-time Peabody Award-winning journalist and former host of NPR's flagship newsmagazine, All Things Considered. She spent much of her career as an international correspondent, reporting from Asia, the former Soviet Union, and the Middle East. She is the creator and host of the acclaimed Embedded podcast, a documentary show that goes to hard places to make sense of the news. She began her career as a newspaper reporter in Chicago.
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