Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations

In Tal Tamr, Syrian Kurds Seek Safety And Shelter From Turkish Attacks

A soldier holds his hands up trying to tell the children he is out of lollipops. Kurdish refugees are streaming in to Tal Tamr and nearby villages in Syria.
A soldier holds his hands up trying to tell the children he is out of lollipops. Kurdish refugees are streaming in to Tal Tamr and nearby villages in Syria.

U.S. Army Capt. Cedric Pollard strolls into the business district of Tal Tamr, Syria, like a mayor at election time.

"Hello, how are you," he says, greeting everyone who comes out to see the Americans. Polland, a former school teacher from Orlando, has a commanding presence with a friendly demeanor. Kids dart along beside him, pulling his sleeve to get his attention. His soldiers hand out lollipops.

Pollard's first stop is an open storefront on a dusty corner, where Abdullah Abdo sells soft drinks, candy and cookies. Abdo has lived here more than 20 years and he's a good source of information.

Abdo says what's new in Tal Tamr is the high number of refugees streaming in to town and nearby villages.

"Almost every day we get to see refugees," Abdo says through an Army interpreter. "People running away from Turkish militias."

Located in northeast Syria, the village of Tal Tamr is a community cloaked in fear. When President Trump decided to withdraw a large portion of U.S. forces last October, Turkey quickly invaded the area. Many fled to Tal Tamr, including most recently Syrian Kurds seeking shelter.

Capt. Pollard and his soldiers are in Tal Tamr to gather information. They are surrounded by locals eager to talk or just watch the Americans as they walk through town.

Just steps away a man sells fruits and vegetables, bins filled with tomatoes, onions and bananas. He says business is slow. Few people from the nearby villages dare to leave their homes.

"All the civilian people are scared to travel on this road," says the vendor, who doesn't want to be identified for security reasons. "The only thing you're going to see is military vehicles, whether it is Russia or you guys or the [Syrian Democratic Forces] traveling on it."

The SDF is made up of Kurdish and Arab fighters allied with the Americans, still fighting remnants of the Islamic State. The man points to the main road.

"Every morning, when I come in and I spot [an American] vehicle over there, I say, 'Oh, it's a safe day. The Americans are here,'" he says.

American forces are here, but they used to have a wider area of control. Now this is as far west as they go. The area is mostly controlled by Syria, and Turkish militias hunker down not far away. They're part of last fall's invasion by Turkey, which sees these Syrian Kurds as enemies aligned with deadly Kurdish separatists inside Turkey.

The vegetable store owner glances at the road again and he's suddenly agitated.

"They will shoot you or kidnap you and ask for ransom money from your family," he says in Arabic through an interpreter. "People will not dare travel on that road going west."

Critics say Trump essentially gave Turkey a green light to invade when the White House sharply reduced the number of U.S. soldiers last fall. This put Tal Tamr at a fault line, caught between remaining U.S. forces and Turkish militias.

Pollard says his soldiers are trying to help. He points to an abandoned school building across the road that's become a refugee haven. Mostly women and children live in the three-story brick building.

"What we're looking at doing is building a playground, a soccer field and put nets out for the basketball goal," says Capt. Pollard.

That project will be funded by private donations through the nonprofit group Spirit of America.

Pollard is also using Pentagon funds to award contracts to local Kurds, for everything from gravel to construction work.

One of those hoping to get work is a woman named Mehmed. She's 28 and a trained architect. She wears an orange sweatshirt with the words Los Angeles on it. Mehmed asked that her full name not be used for security reasons.

"I'm really glad because always it was like a dream for me to build this area," she says with a big smile.

Mehmed fled the town of Kobane when the Turks invaded and headed east, following the Americans. Suddenly her gaze turns intense.

"Turks will kill every Kurd," she says. "Turks is the big, big problem."

Ibrahim Abdullah, a 35-year-old father of three, couldn't agree more.

"As soon as the Turkish militia invaded my village we had to run, flee for our lives," he says.

"The kids were scared, crying," Abdullah says. "We had to leave right away with the air strikes launching at us. As adults we were scared, you can imagine how the kids felt."

Abdullah was a farmer and grew wheat, barley and watermelons.

"Now the only job I have is to carry a weapon and fight with the SDF," he says, adding that's the only way he can make money and feed his family.

Abdullah is part Armenian. In a bitter historical twist, he says his great grandfather came to Syria from Turkey to escape the Turkish genocide of Armenians during World War I.

"And now we're running again from the Turks because they're launching air strikes at us," he says. If things don't change he hopes to leave the country and head for Armenia.

Abdullah is glad the Americans are here, but also frustrated that the civil war in Syria, in its ninth year, has no end in sight.

But not everyone here in this village is glad American troops are here. A tall, slender man with darting eyes and a scowl pushes his way through the crowd. Zayd Ali is a Kurd and also a refugee.

He faults the United States for what happened last fall when the Turks forced thousands to flee for their lives.

"The U.S. and the coalition betrayed us. You're not fighting our fight," he says. "You don't stand next to us, what are you doing here? I don't know what you're doing here." There is anger in his voice.

But as Zayd Ali spoke, the Americans loaded up in their armored vehicles, soon heading back east to their compound.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

KUER is listener-supported public radio. Support this work by making a donation today.