By Dasha Afanasieva
ANKARA (Reuters) – Their faces so burned by a rocket blast they cannot fully close their eyes, 13-year-old Gheis Mekansi and his sister Limar, both Syrian refugees, wait in limbo in Turkey for surgery they need to return to life and school.
A year and a half after they were caught in the attack on an opposition-controlled area of Damascus, the siblings may become victims again as 3 billion euros ($3.4 billion) in aid promised by the European Union has been held up by political wrangling and red tape.
Gheis has six months to wait for facial reconstruction and needs prosthetic fingers available in Europe but not in Turkey. Until then, he and his sister stay indoors, unwilling to go outside where others laugh and stare at their disfigured faces.
“I just want to get my real face back,” Gheis said sitting next to his mother and sister in the small apartment they share in an Ankara suburb filled with Syrian refugee families.
In return for billions in cash for refugees taken in from Syria, visa liberalization and revitalized EU accession, Turkey has agreed to cooperate in stopping migrants crossing the Aegean Sea to Greece and take back those who do not qualify for asylum.
However, months after the deal was signed the EU now expects 182 million euros will have been disbursed by the end of August.
Asked why so little money had been put to use, an EU official pointed to the vast scale of the program, as well as the need to ensure that NGOs earmarked to receive the aid are up to the task.
But last month’s attempted coup in Turkey has also heightened tensions between Ankara and Brussels. Angry Turkish officials perceive a lack of sympathy from Western officials and last month President Tayyip Erdogan questioned the EU’s commitment to promises made in the migrant deal.
One Turkish NGO director who did not want to be named said disagreements between the EU and Turkey were partly to blame for delays in payments.
“The government’s perception is that the EU side is using this money as a political tool instead of wanting it to go to refugees,” he said, adding that the government does not trust the NGOs partnered with the EU.
Two government officials declined to comment, while a presidency official said only that it was important for the EU to live up to its side of the deal.
MONEY WAITING TO BE SPENT
Turkey says it is now host to 2.72 million Syrian refugees, plus tens of thousands of asylum seekers, including Iraqis and Afghans who are fleeing violence in their homelands.
It has argued it would be easier to give the money directly to the government – something the EU rejects, saying it always channels humanitarian aid through specialized agencies and non-governmental institutions so it goes directly to those in need.
However the EU official said that some NGOs in Turkey are unused to the needs and extraordinary scope of the current refugee crisis, and may lack capacity, meaning that extra checks and preparation are needed before the money is disbursed.
In the past ECHO, the European Commission’s aid arm, would typically spends around 1 billion euros backing humanitarian projects globally every year. This year it may spend that in Turkey alone.
Far from EU and Turkish bureaucracy and diplomatic tensions, Gheis and his six-year old sister Limar look at a photograph of their brother Muhammed, who died after an agonizing 10 days in hospital following the rocket attack.
Photographs showing the children building a snowman in happier times are stark contrast to their lives since the blast. In the three months Limar and Gheis were in hospital they underwent four operations each but are still unrecognizable. Gheis has no fingers and Limar can’t breathe properly.
Kerem Kinik, president of the Turkish Red Crescent, told Reuters he expected EU funds would allow children like Gheis and Limar to go to special schools and get treatment faster.
“We were expecting UN agencies and Europe to build up new capacities for at least primary health care but unfortunately we could not receive contributions.”
While Gheis’ family is getting some support from a local NGO, aid workers say there are thousands of devastated families with serious medical problems not receiving adequate help.
Muhammed Elhacmansur and his wife Meryem Elseyh hope to get their four-year-old son Ali, who was blinded by a landmine as the family fled Islamic State, to Europe for an operation to give him back his sight. Four of Ali’s siblings were killed in the explosions.
“We didn’t have any time to even bury them and gather their pieces on the field,” 42-year old Muhammed said.
While Turkey does not officially grant Syrians refugee status, a temporary protection status, in theory, allows them access to healthcare and education for children at least in Turkish. But these efforts cannot make Ali see.
“I don’t need food or clothes or any things,” Ali’s mother said. “I just want my son to recover.”
($1 = 0.8833 euros)
(Additional reporting by Gabriela Baczynska in Brussels and Orhan Coskun in Ankara; editing by Patrick Markey and Dominic Evans)