Syria, One Year After the Earthquake

It has been one year since a 7.8-magnitude earthquake in Turkey and Syria devastated both countries. In the time since, CNEWA-Pontifical Mission has supported its partners on the ground in Syria to provide food, shelter and psychosocial support to the most vulnerable.

On 6 February 2023, a 7.8-magnitude earthquake jarred Aleppo’s population awake, wreaking devastation on a city already ravaged by more than 12 years of conflict and economic collapse.

The initial earthquake and subsequent earthquakes and aftershocks killed more than 50,000 people in Turkey and Syria and injured more than 10,000 in Syria.

“Families … have witnessed the long years of war and economic crisis and yet say that they have never experienced anything close to the horror of the earthquake,” said Michel Constantin, regional director of CNEWA-Pontifical Mission in Lebanon, Syria and Egypt. Mr. Constantin visited partners and beneficiaries in Aleppo soon after the initial earthquake, on 20 February 2023, with Rita Sleiman Bishara, senior project manager for Syria and Lebanon.

CNEWA’s regional team, based in Beirut, was quick to respond, launching an emergency appeal fewer than 24 hours after the earthquake. The appeal raised more than $1.6 million in emergency funds to provide aid in Aleppo, Lattakia, Homs and Hama through 2024.

As the needs on the ground have developed since the earthquake, so, too, have CNEWA-Pontifical Mission’s efforts with its partners, including the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, the Blue Marists, the Salesian Fathers and the Mekhitarist Fathers.

Michel Constantin, CNEWA’s regional director in Beirut, visits with a family in Aleppo.
Michel Constantin, CNEWA’s regional director in Beirut, visits with a family in Aleppo on 25 February, one of hundreds sheltered by the Society of St. Vincent de Paul after the devastating 6 February earthquake in Syria and Turkey. (photo: CNEWA Beirut)

The first stage of relief included the provision of hot meals, milk and diapers, medicine and mattresses, as well as support to those sheltering the displaced, such as the members of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, who housed more than 4,000 people in the first days after the earthquake.

The second phase is ongoing, and includes providing furniture to more than 300 families, food packages to some 2,400 families, renovations and repairs to more than 425 homes and psychosocial programs for approximately 5,000 people.

To address home repairs, a committee of bishops coordinates earthquake relief efforts and selects engineers to determine the level of destruction: (a) complete destruction; (b) in need of heavy work; or (c) in need of minor repairs. CNEWA-Pontifical Mission’s share in the program focuses on homes in need of minor repairs.

CNEWA-Pontifical Mission and its partners then conduct home visits to assess the needs and evaluate if the damages are a result of the earthquake or reflect pre-existing damages. Once it is determined that there is an earthquake-related need, the agency works to make the proper repairs and replace damaged appliances or furniture.

The staff of CNEWA visit an apartment damaged by the earthquake in Aleppo.
The staff of CNEWA-Pontifical Mission visit the apartment of Rawd Rafec in Aleppo. The massive earthquakes that struck Syria in February sparked an electrical fire that destroyed her home. (photo: Raghida Skaff)

Another major element of the current response is psychosocial programming, particularly for children. Many inhabitants of Aleppo were afraid to return to their homes, saying they wanted to remain in the church centers, which they felt were structurally uncompromised.

Some children stopped speaking or were unable to complete their schoolwork because of the trauma.

“We thought they were deaf from the force of the explosion, but it turned out they were not,” said Mr. Constantin. “They could hear and understand, but they couldn’t respond. So, they needed a deeper intervention.”

A recent initiative between CNEWA-Pontifical Mission and the Society of St. Vincent de Paul brings psychosocial care to Aleppo’s youth. The pilot program screened close to 3,000 students across nine schools to determine those most in need of psychosocial support after the earthquake. Fifty children, ages 5 to 12, were selected to receive one-on-one care through the program.

“There was a kid who was only thinking about death,” said Darine Tawk, project coordinator for CNEWA-Pontifical Mission. “He was very aggressive … He didn’t want to live anymore.”

After a few months of psychological support from specialists and teachers, there was a noticeable shift. “His situation is getting better. His grades are improving,” said Ms. Tawk.

“These children, they were born in the war, and then they experienced the war, the hunger, economy and finally the earthquake,” said Imad Abou Jaoude, CNEWA-Pontifical Mission’s program manager for Syria and Iraq. “Imagine their situation.”

Olivia Poust is assistant editor of ONE.

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