Stories

It took seconds for our lives to change

Reflections from our earthquake response in Türkiye and Syria

06 May marks the three-month anniversary of the deadly twin earthquakes that struck southern Türkiye and Syria in the early hours of 06 February 2023. The first came at 04:17, a magnitude 7.8 behemoth that caused buildings to crumble almost down to their foundations. The second came just hours later, bringing even more devastation. To date, more than 59,000 people are confirmed to have died.

In Syria, our colleagues departed immediately and drove straight to Aleppo, which had been heavily damaged by the earthquakes and where we’ve been working for years providing urgently needed humanitarian support to vulnerable families affected by years of crises. At the same time, our Global Emergency Response Team booked flights to Türkiye, and planned out a route to drive across the country from Istanbul to Gaziantep.

In the three months that have passed since the earthquakes struck, we’ve been supporting earthquake-affected families across the region. In Syria, we’re providing services like mental health and psychosocial support, rehabilitating health clinics and safe water and hygiene infrastructure, and providing unconditional cash transfers and urgently needed household items like blankets, tarps, tents, and stoves. In Türkiye, we’re working with partners to distribute essential household items, run unconditional cash distributions, and offer mental health and psychosocial support.

Many of the people we’ve met with and spoken to since the earthquakes remain deeply affected by what they have experienced – but there are moments of strength and light as well. Here are some of the stories they’ve shared.

Life changed in an instant

Prior to the earthquake, the Turkish city of Adiyaman was known for its sweet grapes, which were considered a local speciality and celebrated with a statue in the centre of town. Today, that statue is surrounded by piles of rubble. Much of Adiyaman lays in ruins, and construction crews are working around the clock to tear down and remove the buildings that are too compromised to remain standing.

“Before the earthquake, around 50,000 people lived here,” says Ali, a city official. “But after the earthquake, maybe 85 percent of the people left. Some have returned; they want to rebuild their lives. For right now the problem is rubble. There is too much rubble for people to return to their homes.”

“Before the earthquake, Adiyaman was a very social place. There was lots of culture. The quality of life was very high,” Ali remembers. “Now all we are trying to do is stay alive.”

In the immediate days and weeks after the earthquake, we distributed essential items like blankets, tents, stoves, and flashlights to families who had lost everything. These items couldn’t fix the loss of a beloved city or the feeling of being safe in your own home, but could provide warmth and light during very long, dark nights.

A man in bright orange vest stands in front of a pile of rubble while two excavators dig through destroyed building foundations behind him.

A foreman stands in front of two excavators tearing down heavily damaged buildings in Adiyaman, Turkey. ©Medair / Lucy Bamforth

A mother’s love is greater than fear

Nadia and her family of five were in their home on the outskirts of Kahramanmaraş, Türkiye, at the time the first earthquake began. In the houses around them, their neighbours started to shout. Glass shattered, and the sound of breaking concrete began to fill the air as buildings began to crumble. But Nadia had just one thig on her mind: her 22-year-old son, Barra, who has cerebral palsy and a reduced ability to move on his own.

“Our neighbours were telling us to leave the house because it was starting to come apart,” Nadia says. “I yelled, ‘I am not leaving without my son!’”

Nadia scooped her adult son into her arms and carried him outside to safety. She sat with him and her other children for hours in the rain, afraid to returning to their house for fear that it would collapse while they were inside. When tent distributions took place a few days later, Nadia set hers up on some farmland close to the house that she’d called home for six years. She strung balloons up from the ceiling to give her children something to look at while they fall asleep. It isn’t a perfect solution, she says, and she knows that her children want to go home.

“We will go back,” she says, resting a protective hand on Barra’s back. “I just need time.”

In Türkiye (through partners) and in Syria, we’re working through partners to provide vulnerable families just like Nadia’s with unconditional cash transfers that will enable them to meet family’s most pressing needs, giving them the choice and the dignity – after everything they have been through – to decide for themselves what will benefit them most.

A mother sits beside her son, who is lying down.

Nadia, right, and her son Barra, left, in their tent. They have lived here since the devastating 06 February earthquakes. ©Medair / Lucy Bamforth.

Mental health needs remain extremely high

In the weeks after the earthquakes, symptoms associated with mental distress were pervasive through earthquake-affected communities. People reported difficulties sleeping, having nightmares or intrusive memories about the earthquakes, and spending increasing amounts of time alone.

These are familiar feelings for Fatima, whose three-month-old daughter died in the earthquake when a wall collapsed on top of her. Her daughter’s twin and her seven older children all survived; they now live in a tent in a formal settlement in the Turkish city of Nurdağı. But the grief for the death of her daughter never leaves her side.

“It took seconds for our lives to change. Seconds. I lost my daughter. I lost everything,” Fatima says. “I don’t feel like going out or meeting people. I eat to survive. That’s it.”

Fatima’s experience, heart-wrenching and shattering as it is, is one of many in this region. In Türkiye (with partners) and Syria, we are providing mental health services and awareness sessions to support and improve the mental health and psychosocial wellbeing of families and individuals affected by the earthquakes.

The hands of children holding coloured pencils are seen colouring in pictures of flowers and cartoon characters.

Children colour in pictures during a mental health support session in a formal settlement in Nurdağı. ©Medair / Lucy Bamforth

What’s next for our work in Türkiye and Syria?

In the immediate aftermath of the earthquakes, our priority was on providing humanitarian relief to families who had just lost everything. This included items like blankets, flashlights, and hygiene packs – materials that would help families stay warm in frigid winter temperatures, and provide dignity and privacy. Our focus now, however, is on providing humanitarian support that will help people recover with dignity. That means we’ll be looking at the more long-term needs, like continuing to provide mental health support, providing dignified shelter options, and looking at how to support families who have lost their income. Whatever we do, we’ll continue working closely with the communities we serve to design interventions that meet their needs, and in doing so, support them and their families rebuild their lives.

 

 


Medair’s earthquake response in Syria is made possible thanks to generous funding from the European Commission’s Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the Swiss Agency of Development and Cooperation, Swiss Solidarity, the Disasters Emergency Committee, and private donors. In Türkiye, we are responding to the earthquake with generous funding provided by Läkarmissionen, Medical Teams International, PMU Interlife, Radiojhalpen, and Swiss Solidarity.

This content was produced with resources gathered by Medair field and headquarters staff. The views expressed herein are those solely of Medair and should not be taken, in any way, to reflect the official opinion of any other organisation.