After the earthquake in Aleppo

By Dania Kareh
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Oxfam is distributing hygiene items like soap to people displaced by earthquakes in Syria and living in shelters around the city of Aleppo. Islam Mardini / Oxfam

How Syrians will survive and recover from the worst quake in 100 years

Walking the streets of Aleppo right after the devastating earthquake in February, I was struck by the heavy silence hanging over the city. People were wandering the streets on that cold morning. Some had lost their loved ones, or watched their homes collapse in front of their eyes. Everyone looked scared and tired.

Moving around the city, I saw rooftops brought to the ground, furniture scattered underneath, and owners of some houses desperately attempting to pull out sentimental items like old pictures from under the heaps of rubble. The scene was heartbreaking, and I felt a lump in my throat.

This is the worst earthquake that has hit the country in a century. Thousands of people lost their lives under collapsed buildings, many more were injured, and tens of thousands were forced to leave their damaged homes, fearing they would collapse too.

Surviving the horrors of the earthquake

In Hellok, one of Aleppo’s neighborhoods, people gathered in a park away from the buildings. I approached a group of women and asked about that ‘black night’ of the earthquake. They were sitting on the ground wearing only what they had put on when they rushed out of their homes. Some children were barefoot while others were wearing only light clothes despite the freezing temperature.

Mariam, a 52-year-old woman, talked about the chaotic night. She described the faint sound she heard when the earthquake hit. At first, she thought it was the sound of a shell landing nearby, but the sound became louder and was soon deafening. “It took us a few minutes before we realized that this was a quake. It was as if the earth was breathing and with every breath, the whole building swayed right and left. Those few seconds were an eternity,” said Mariam as a tear broke free, quickly followed by more.

Mariam and her family had to spend that night outdoors in heavy, freezing rain. Afterwards, they moved to a nearby mosque and then to a shelter. They have not gone back home since.

Six weeks after the earthquake, I can still see people like Mariam sitting in parks or in small tents, with no idea what they will do next. For them, the future is bleaker than any time and their home is no longer a place of comfort or safety.

What Oxfam is doing to help people in Syria

Our Oxfam team, together with partners, is already providing safe drinking water and installing tanks to increase the capacity to store clean water at shelters. Our team also fixed water taps and toilets in shelters to make sure families have an improved access to functioning toilets. We are repairing water systems damaged by the earthquake and distributing hygiene items (like soap) in affected communities to prevent the spread of diseases like cholera, which can kill more people after the earthquake than perished during the actual quake. Other items like menstrual pads and baby diapers were also delivered to families affected by the quake.

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Many families in Aleppo that were displaced by the earthquakes in February are living in tents around the city, including this woman and her three children and husband. Islam Mardini / Oxfam

To help people have the confidence to move back into homes that are safe, Oxfam supported engineering assessments of buildings to determine which are safe enough to be occupied. Oxfam is also planning to provide cash to almost 2,000 families so they can buy food and purchase any other items they might need. In the next three years, Oxfam intends to help 800,000 people affected by the earthquakes in Syria.

What is it like to stay in a shelter in Aleppo?

People who escaped their unsafe or even collapsed buildings are now staying in hastily setup shelters that are massively overcrowded. In one school-turned-shelter I visited in Aleppo, 52 people were crammed into one small room, without enough blankets, mattresses, or even partitions to give a bit of privacy to each family. “We’re only receiving one meal a day,” little Samira told me. The 11-year-old girl and her mother and two sisters had to move out of their rented apartment due to serious cracks in the walls. They now share a room with several other families.

There isn’t always enough water to cover the needs in the shelter. “We have not taken a shower for almost 12 days” Samira explained. And even if water was available, women told us it is not safe for them to use a facility without a door lock and inadequate lighting: “This will leave us vulnerable if someone else walks in,” they said. To help reduce risks for people in shelters, Oxfam is upgrading toilets and other facilities, and distributing solar lamps and hygiene items.

A long recovery ahead

The shock of the earthquake piled on top of 12 years of brutal war in Syria marked by crumbling infrastructure, financial collapse, coronavirus, soaring food prices and a recent cholera outbreak is forcing more and more people deeper into the grips of poverty.

No one really knows when the recovery from this earthquake will be over. What we do know is that it can engulf entire communities and can last for months if not years if Syrians are not offered enough support that can help them live with dignity.

While we are stepping up efforts to support affected people, much more is still needed to help Syrians get back on their feet. We know that this will be a long journey before people can rebuild their lives again.

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