ANTAKYA, Turkey — Paintings by Syrian children filled easels in one room. Clay sculptures dotted shelves. Paper figurines depicted popular cartoon characters.
In another room, four Syrian women wearing overcoats and hijabs gathered for an exercise class. Aerobics step boards lined the floor.
Mariya, a 29-year-old mother of four from Idlib, in northwest Syria, said the Danish Refugee Council Community Center helps her meet new people. She connects with other refugees in Antakya, in southern Turkey, which offers a sectarian mix similar to Syria — home to Alawites, Sunnis and Christians.
“I was getting bored at home,” Mariya said. “Here, I get to make new friends from Syria, talk about our country.”
Like other refugees, Mariya still has relatives in war-torn Syria and felt uncomfortable giving her full name.
The door closed when the women were ready to begin their workout.
Several thousand Syrians of all ages have gone to the center since it opened less than a year ago. Activities include computer training and Turkish language courses, knitting and art classes and a wide variety of musical options.
In fact, the music room is open all the time. People can just go in and pick up an instrument – hand drums, keyboard, guitar. Some refugees enroll in formal classes to learn how to play a stringed instrument known in Turkish as the baglama, in hopes of fitting in better with the local community.
“It’s a place for people to come and socialize and have fun,” said Ozge Togay, a senior community center officer for the council.
The center is funded as part of the more than $5 billion in total humanitarian assistance the U.S. has provided to those affected by the Syrian conflict since it started in March 2011, and administered by the council, a humanitarian nonprofit organization working in about 30 countries.
Mostly women and youth use the center, located in a four-story apartment building on the fringes of downtown Antakya.
Much of the center’s emphasis is on integration. But aid workers acknowledge that providing a safe space for activities addresses an urgent need because of the civil war in Syria and the resulting death and displacement of millions.
Turkey, Syria’s northern neighbor, had absorbed some 1.9 million refugees by the end of 2015, making it the largest host of Syrian refugees globally, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
Widely praised for initially welcoming refugees — providing some of the best refugee camps in the world, according to monitors — the nation soon found itself overwhelmed, with Ankara miscalculating Syrian President Bashar Assad’s durability.
Amnesty International recently accused Turkey of forcefully returning up to 100 refugees to Syria each day, including unaccompanied minors, in violation of the “non-refoulement” principle of international humanitarian law.
Other rights watchdogs contend that Turkish troops fired live ammunition at Syrians desperately seeking entry to Turkey as Turkish-backed militia suffered a string of defeats at the hands of the Islamic State extremist group in northern Aleppo province, forcing tens of thousands of people to flee.
Many displaced people have been trapped along the border with nowhere left to run. The Syrian government has continued its relentless air assault on opposition-occupied areas of the north. Ankara insists that the U.S. and European powers should establish a warplane-patrolled “safe zone” in northern Syria, where the displaced and returnees could seek refuge.
“The whole world is talking about fighting ISIS, and yet those most at risk of becoming victims of its horrific abuses are trapped on the wrong side of a concrete wall,” Gerry Simpson, senior refugee researcher at Human Rights Watch, said, using an acronym for Islamic State. “EU officials should recognize that their red light for refugees to enter the EU gives Turkey a green light to close its border, exacting a heavy price on war-ravaged asylum seekers with nowhere else to go.”
Under such conditions, the community center in Antakya serves as a haven for some of the lucky ones, even if they miss Syria.
Reja, a 39-year-old mother of six, said she did not want to leave her home in central Aleppo — near that city’s large medieval citadel — two years ago, but often indiscriminate bombardments by government warplanes took a toll.
“It was too dangerous to stay there,” she said. “We wanted to stay, but once the warplanes came, we had to leave.”
Like others, Reja said her husband spends his days in Antakya trying to find work — construction, perhaps, or any type of labor.
Elsewhere, in a room dedicated to creative arts, Rama, 14, and Reema, 15, both from Idlib province, made decorations from string and paper. A tangled knot of purple string sat on the table in front of the girls; assorted pens, pencils and paints were perched on nearby shelves.
“I came here to learn new things,” Reema said.
“It is the only place we feel happy,” said Rama.
The girls wondered if they would ever see Syria again.
“I miss everything in Syria,” Rama said. “Living in Turkey is difficult.”
Many Syrians who go to the community center say they would rather be in their home country, but doubt that it will stabilize sufficiently to allow their return any time soon. Instead, they expect to hunker down as refugees.
Four young men from different parts of Syria: the capital, Damascus; Hasakah in the northeast; Aleppo, once the urbane hub of the Syrian business classes, emerged from a Turkish language class.
“The grammar is kind of difficult,” said Ali, a 29-year-old from Aleppo. “I have to learn Turkish. This is my new country.”