ONE Magazine

The official publication of
Catholic Near East Welfare Association

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On Shaky Ground

Multiple crises intensify aid efforts in Syria

“Whatever words I may say would not be enough to describe that moment,” says Abir Ahmar Dakno about the 7.8-magnitude earthquake that hit southern Turkey and northern Syria in the early morning of 6 February. 

It was 4:17 a.m., three hours before sunrise, and the earth trembled for 45 seconds. Enveloped within the rumbling of shifting earth and crumbling concrete, children could be heard crying and families praying. 

Minutes after the shaking stopped, throngs of residents of Aleppo, Syria’s largest city closest to the epicenter, were on the darkened streets in a state of sheer panic, despite the cold winter rain. Many survivors reported feeling terrified and thinking they were going to die.

According to a report released in mid-March by the Blue Marists of Aleppo, a local Catholic organization, some 458 people died and more than 1,000 people were injured in the ancient city. At least 60 buildings collapsed, and hundreds more were irreparably damaged. In less than a minute, hundreds of thousands of people were homeless. 

Overall, the 7.8-magnitude earthquake — centered 98 miles north of Aleppo in Gaziantep, Turkey — stands as the deadliest natural disaster of modern times in present-day Turkey and the largest earthquake to impact Syria in two centuries, killing more than 53,000 people and internally displacing about 6 million in both countries combined. About 8,000 quake-related deaths were reported in Syria alone.

Blue Marists in Aleppo prepare meals for earthquake survivors.
Leyla Antaki, second from left, co-founder of the Blue Marists in Aleppo, and fellow volunteers prepare meals for earthquake survivors. (photo: Raghida Skaff)

Aleppo is no stranger to mass destruction. During Syria’s 12-year civil war, the city was the site of intense fighting, from 2012 to 2016, which killed more than 31,000 people and destroyed 30 percent of the old city. Then, from one minute to the next on 6 February, life in Aleppo got exponentially worse. For the tens of thousands of survivors who lost family members, as well as their homes and businesses, their entire world collapsed that day.

“It’s true we are offering help, but we are finding great comfort. When we are asked to give two hours, we give four.”

Within hours of the quake, recovery efforts were underway as municipalities, aid organizations and community leaders organized emergency shelters in mosques, churches, schools, convents, parish halls and sports stadiums.

CNEWA-Pontifical Mission was among the church agencies to respond immediately, focusing relief efforts in Syria, providing shelter, food, medicine, blankets, clothing and other essentials for up to 3,000 people through its partners on the ground.

Regional director for CNEWA’s Beirut office, distributes packages to school children at a center of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul in Aleppo.
Michel Constantin, regional director for CNEWA’s Beirut office, distributes packages to school children at a center of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul in Aleppo. (photo: Raghida Skaff)

The situation remained tenuous for weeks, as hundreds of daily aftershocks — as well as larger quakes — kept locals on high alert. Nine hours after the initial earthquake, a second earthquake measuring 7.7 struck about 60 miles north of Gaziantep. Two weeks later, on 20 February, two more earthquakes shook the region — measuring magnitudes of 6.4 and 5.8 respectively. 

At this point, the residents of Aleppo who had returned to their damaged homes thinking the situation had stabilized panicked and went back to the shelters, where some people stayed for almost 40 days.

Abir Ahmar Dakno heads the youth section of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul in Syria, which has been assisting Aleppines with their needs since the first quake hit. 

“From Day 1, we realized the shelters were in need of everything,” she recalls. “Some were hosting 1,800 to 1,900 persons. Our work on the ground started immediately.

“Many women were in a state of shock and were not able to breastfeed anymore. We were in great need of baby formula or else we would face a disaster.”

Immediately, Mrs. Dakno and her colleagues contacted CNEWA’s Beirut office, whose “response was very prompt,” she says. 

“They provided us with funds, and we were able to help many shelters with food, blankets, baby formula, medication. We provided diapers for babies and for the elderly.”

The Society of St. Vincent de Paul created a crisis management cell of 40 volunteers — the youngest member was 19 — who distributed items in multiple shelters and entertained children who were, and still are, in great need of emotional support, says Mrs. Dakno.

Hikmat Sanjian started volunteering in spite of himself, after accompanying his friend Mrs. Dakno to a shelter. An engineer and a professional dancer, Mr. Sanjian’s task was to distract the children while volunteers distributed food and supplies. He did so by inviting them to dance. 

“Children don’t care about food,” he says. “Of course, all these items are important, but children want joy, they want to move, to laugh.” 

He felt compelled to help, and his initial reluctance to volunteer gave way. In the days that followed, he visited the shelters daily, inviting the children to dance each time. He recalls a girl named Fatima, whose legs were amputated due to a war injury. Fatima’s parents wanted to shield her from the dancing Mr. Sanjian was organizing. They feared she would be upset at being unable to participate. But he insisted that she join them, and she enjoyed herself fully, he says. 

Laura Jenji, 24, her younger brother, Edward, 23, and their friend George Hamoui, 23, volunteer about 40 hours a week with the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. The three university students speak passionately about the work they do and the meaning it brings to their lives. 

“It’s true we are offering help, but we are finding great comfort,” says Edward. “When we are asked to give two hours, we give four.” 

“People really need us,” says George, who had started by helping in the shelters, but has since begun assisting with damage assessments of homes in the city. “It’s important to me that I keep on helping.”

On a field visit, Rawd Rafek, a young mother of twins, struggles to find the words to explain how an electrical short circuit after the earthquake sparked a fire that burned down her apartment. She is unable to finish a sentence without crying — a sign of the deep trauma she is suffering. 

Mrs. Rafek had never wanted to leave Syria, even during the 12-year war, which forced her to flee her village and take refuge in Aleppo. However, the earthquake has left her with nothing and for the first time, she says, she is thinking about moving abroad. 

Dr. Nabil Antaki, 73, a gastroenterologist, and his wife, Leyla, are committed to staying in Syria and have made the promotion of solidarity in Syrian society their life’s mission.

“My wife and I took two major decisions in our lives,” he says. “The first one, in 1979, when we decided to come back to Syria from Canada; the second, in 2013, when we decided to stay in Aleppo despite the war because we saw there was work to be done here with our people.” 

In 1986, Dr. Antaki, Leyla and Marist Brother George Sabe launched The Ear of God, a social solidarity project, which came to be known as the Blue Marists in 2012. The Blue Marists have 155 team members, who support Aleppine families impacted by the war, regardless of religious affiliation. They run 14 relief, educational and human development programs that serve the most vulnerable.

Jocelyne Orfali heads the Blue Marists’ Sharing Bread project, which provides a daily hot meal for 250 seniors who live alone in Aleppo. After accompanying her on a delivery one day, her 18-year-old son also decided to join the Blue Marists. 

“People need us. That really makes you want to help,” says Mrs. Orfali. 

Blue Marists deliver a hot meal to a senior in Aleppo.
Blue Marists deliver a hot meal to a senior in Aleppo. (photo: Raghida Skaff)

Lexa Nuhad Luxa’s eyes light up every time he speaks about the Blue Marists. The 24-year-old national martial arts champion is trying to make ends meet as an aluminum technician and has found a sense of purpose working with the Blue Marists.

“Believe me, when you see that despite all your difficulties and disappointments you can still help and give, you feel a great joy. You feel you can do something and you want to give more and more,” he says.

In the days after the earthquake, the Blue Marists were housing and feeding up to 1,000 families in Aleppo. Less than 30 minutes after the earthquake, they opened their center to hundreds of people for more than 20 days. They offered shelter, daily meals, medical care, medication and support. Since those who were sheltered returned to their homes, the Blue Marists have been offering rent support and assistance for building repair. 

Brother George says he considers Syria’s economic crisis, including inflation and unemployment, to be the most significant challenge since the earthquake. According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, 90 percent of Syria’s population currently lives below the poverty line and basic food prices have soared 800 percent in the past two years. In addition to people losing their homes in the earthquake, many also lost their source of revenue: their shops and professional equipment. 

The second challenge, he says, is “the ever-growing wish to leave the country.” 

“People are worn out by 12 years of war, and then comes the earthquake,” he says. “The youth are very frustrated. There is a loss of meaning. ‘Why am I alive?’ they wonder.” 

Syrians also felt abandoned by the international community immediately after the earthquake, he adds. 

“We did not receive any international aid. We received humanitarian aid from church organizations. The international organizations refuse to contribute to any rebuilding,” he says. “We are very grateful that Christian humanitarian institutions took the initiative to come to the aid of the Syrian Aleppine person.” 

The openness of these church groups to help all Syrians, Christian and Muslim, “really shows how much our relationship with these institutions is based on deep human values,” says Brother George.

“We were overwhelmed by this solidarity shown to us by individuals and organizations. It is not only about the money. They are truly available and ready to help.”

In April, two months after the first earthquake, humanitarian aid workers shifted from emergency response to the second stage of disaster relief, which includes relocating families to stable housing, carrying out minor home repairs, and replacing furniture and household items. 

Mrs. Dakno says the survivors fall into one of three categories: those who lost their homes, those whose homes were damaged and need repair or new furnishings, and those who suffered severe trauma and are “terrified to go back home.”

The relief team of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul has been conducting field visits to identify the particular needs of families, which were already significant as a result of the 12-year civil war. While those whose homes were found unsafe and uninhabitable after the earthquake are receiving housing and rent subsidies, the vast majority of residents lost furniture and equipment, which they are incapable of replacing.

“Everybody’s plates and glasses were shattered. Just to replace these would cost people a little fortune,” says Mrs. Dakno. 

Of great concern as well are the people’s psychological needs. “We have seen some very severe cases of trauma,” she says. “We are in tremendous need of psychological support.” 

Due to the lack of professional therapists in Aleppo, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul is preparing online training sessions with counseling professionals in Beirut to help accompany earthquake survivors. 

“We need professionals who would offer some of their time, to be constantly in contact with us,” she says. “Just as there are cracks in the buildings, there are cracks inside each one of us, and I’m afraid they are much more difficult to fix.”

“There is a huge amount of work to be done for these people in order for them to be able to go back to their daily routine without the fear of losing each other.”

Brother George observes the acute need for psychological support in the wake of the earthquake as well.

“When the earth was trembling, families got together and started praying,” he explains. “It was a moment of great fear. Now parents are afraid to let go of their children and children don’t want to leave their parents. There is a huge amount of work to be done for these people in order for them to be able to go back to their daily routine without the fear of losing each other.”

However, amid the destruction, the natural disaster has brought with it an opportunity for “new experiences, people’s love, solidarity, openness to the other, not only on an international level but also on a local one,” says Brother George. Despite the collective trauma, Aleppines seem to find solace in being there for each other.

“We were very open to each other. It was a beautiful ‘social earthquake,’ and we should learn from this experience to build the future that we want for ourselves.”

Read this article in our digital print format here.

Arzé Khodr is a freelance writer and playwright, based in Beirut.

The CNEWA Connection

CNEWA’s emergency response team, based in Beirut, moved quickly after a 6 February earthquake shook Syria and Turkey. The first stages of relief provided food, medicine, blankets, clothes and other essentials through the agency’s partners, such as the Blue Marists and the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. CNEWA has raised more than $1.5 million in emergency relief since the disaster first struck. In addition to the first wave of aid, the Beirut-based team has funded psychosocial programs, rental assistance and the relocation of families, minor repairs of homes and the supply of basic furniture.

To support this crucial work, call 1-800-442-6392 (United States) or 1-866-322-4441 (Canada) or visit emergency-syria.

Arzé Khodr is a freelance writer and playwright, based in Beirut.

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