The tremors began in the early hours of the morning, long before the sun’s glow first began to appear on the horizon. As far away as Damascus and Beirut, more than 500 kilometres from the earthquake’s epicentre, buildings swayed, cars rattled, and lampposts groaned as the earth shook. It was one of the most powerful earthquakes to hit the region in 80 years – and it was only the first.
The impacts of the devastating twin earthquakes that struck Türkiye on 06 February 2023 are being felt across the region, but nowhere more acutely than in the areas close to the twin quakes’ epicentres. In towns and cities across south-eastern Türkiye and northern Syria, entire buildings collapsed beneath the strain of the trembling earth, many with residents – ordinary women, men, and children – still inside. In the hours that followed, other buildings, weakened by recurrent tremors and aftershocks, crumbled to the ground. Critical water, health, and civil infrastructure were also destroyed.
We’ve been working in Aleppo and Hama governorates, two of the most heavily impacted areas of Syria, since 2016. The day before the earthquake struck, our colleagues from across Syria had travelled to Damascus for annual team meetings – but as soon as news of the devastation broke, the meetings were cancelled and our team made plans to travel to Aleppo. They arrived less than 24 hours later, and this is what they saw.
Devastation and Displacement
Rescue workers are hard at work throughout the city, digging through layer upon layer of iron and cement to try and locate survivors within the wreckage.
The fear, says our colleague Lisanne, is everywhere. “In many places in Aleppo, the streets are very narrow, so there aren’t many places to escape if a building collapses,” she says. “People are afraid of more buildings collapsing, so lots of families are sleeping outside – sometimes in their cars, other times in public parks, on the streets, or in big fields.”
In some cases, community shelters and local schools have opened up their doors to displaced families, pushing tables and chairs against the walls to make room to sleep on the floor. As multiple families share one room there is often very little privacy, and the rooms are damp and bitterly cold. Only a few people have blankets or mattresses; many must sleep directly on the frigid floors. In one school our team visited, a family had set up a stove in one of the classrooms and were burning what little fuel they could find in order to stay warm. One man held the stove’s pipe up to the only window in the room, trying to make sure all of the smoke went outside.
“People are very afraid to return home,” says Noor, our Emergency Response Team Lead in Syria. “They told us that they’ve lost everything they own. And they have told us that they are hungry and cold.”
A rapidly deteriorating humanitarian crisis
In addition to the huge loss of life and enormous need for shelter, key infrastructure like hospitals and safe water pipelines have been critically damaged. Many of the collective shelters lack access to soap and running water, and as of yet there is little food or blankets to keep people warm.
Situations like these create a perfect storm for a humanitarian crisis. Limited access to safe water or hygiene infrastructure contributes to the spread of waterborne diseases like cholera, which had already been on the rise in Syria prior to the earthquakes. Illnesses like these can travel quickly through populations living in cramped conditions and who have spent days with little food or warmth. Damaged hospitals and health clinics have limited resources to provide the necessary medical care to respond, and damaged roads blocked with debris can drastically slow down the delivery of humanitarian support.
This would be impossible for any city to cope with – but many towns and cities in Aleppo and Hama governorates, where we are currently assessing needs and determining how to respond, have already lived through more than a decade of crises. There is limited capacity to respond, and yet the needs keep on growing.
“People in Aleppo have not recovered from the Syria crisis,” says Noor. “We really need help.”
Amid the devastation, humanity
In more than 30 years of delivering urgent humanitarian need in situations like this, our teams are still moved by the humanity, compassion, and determination that is often shared in moments like these. In a crowded collective shelter that was once a basketball stadium, two young sisters – only one of whom had shoes – played an invented game involving a coffee cup, oblivious to the noise of other displaced families around them. In a park crowded with families seeking safety from unsafe buildings, an Aleppian man drove up in his car and distributed food to the families in park, then quietly drove away again. In a crowded school where more than 100 families had sought shelter, a traditional community leader went out of his way to reassure the stressed-out facility manager of the facility that things would be okay. They are small, bright sparks of hope in a terrible, heart-breaking, and overwhelming situation.
At the time of writing, more than 18,000 people were confirmed to have been killed in the earthquakes, though that number is likely to be out-of-date by publication. Around 17 million people across Türkiye and Syria are expected to be in need of urgent humanitarian support. In addition to the emergency response team in Syria, our Global Emergency Response Team is in south-eastern Türkiye, conducting assessments and determining how best to respond. We believe the most pressing humanitarian needs will be for shelter, health, safe water and sanitation, warmth, and essential household supplies like mattresses and blankets.
You can deliver this urgently needed support to families whose lives have been upended by this tragedy. Act now.
In Syria, Medair’s work is made possible by the European Commission’s Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations, UNOCHA, Swiss Agency of Development and Cooperation (SDC), Swiss Solidarity, SlovakAid and generous private donors like you. Our Global Emergency Response Team in Türkiye is supported by generous private donors.
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.