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One year after the devastating earthquakes in Türkiye and Syria: “It is too dark to dream”

Jindires, in northern Syria in the Afrin District of the Aleppo Governorate, was among the areas most affected by the earthquake. More than 500 people were killed in the town and thousands became homeless. Photo: HiH/CARE

Jindires, in northern Syria in the Afrin District of the Aleppo Governorate, was among the areas most affected by the earthquake. More than 500 people were killed in the town and thousands became homeless. Photo: HiH/CARE

A soft, white, powdery dust from debris still coats every surface here in Samandağ, a small city near Türkiye’s border with Syria.

Gönül wipes the dust off her mobile phone’s screen with her fingers.

“I can still hear the voices of people screaming for help under the rubble,” she says. “I can still see the buildings right across my house collapsing and disappearing within seconds.”

“I still remember very clearly the image of one woman holding her two children and crying out for help in the entrance of a building the moment it collapsed on them. I still remember people carrying dead bodies, people washing their deceased family members in the streets.”

On February 6, 2023, a little after 4 a.m., a 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck south-central Türkiye and neighboring Syria. A second 7.7 magnitude earthquake struck later that day at 1:24 p.m.

Since that morning, 19 million people have been impacted across the earthquake affected areas in both Türkiye and Syria.

In Türkiye alone, around 15 million people reside in the affected areas, including approximately 1.7 million Syrian refugees who have fled the conflict in Syria, which has been going on for almost 12 years.

In one of the north-western regions of Syria, there are about 4.6 million residents, about half of whom are internally displaced people.

Gönül is sitting in a wooden chair in the yard of what used to be a lively café in Samandag. She wipes the tears from her eyes with her sleeve.

“I will never forget,” she says.

‘It was clear we could not stay here’

Bulent outside his home. Tarek Satea/CARE

Bulent, 48, used to work as a mathematics teacher, giving private lessons to children in a village close to Harbiye municipality in Defne, Hatay. Today he lives in a room of about 65 square feet with his 40-year-old sister, and their parents, ages 71 and 73. Their house collapsed one year ago.

“After the earthquakes, we stayed in the open for about a week,” he recalls. “There is a cemetery one street right after our house, and after the earthquakes people carrying deceased bodies were passing right in front our door, asking if we had a shovel which they could borrow to bury the corpses. It was clear we could not stay here.”

Children in northern Syria play in the temporary shelters. Photo: HiH/CARE

A week after the earthquake, Bulent and his family left to find shelter at a relative’s house in Mersin city. They stayed there for about two months, and then Bulent came back to assess the condition of the house. He wanted to repair it as well as he could before his parents and his sister returned. But he could not do much.

“Our house was and still is heavily damaged,” he says. “All four of us had to stay in a tent for about eight months. We did not even have a shower for eight months. It was very difficult. And still is.”

With a population of 1,686,043 people as of 2022, Hatay is the biggest among the four most heavily impacted provinces in Türkiye, and it has the highest severity of damage to residential buildings. There are persistent water shortages and a lack of adequate toilet and shower facilities, which significant health risks, especially under low winter temperatures and especially for women who have the primary responsibility for water supply, sanitation, and the health of the whole family.

Water is necessary for drinking, cooking, personal hygiene, cleaning and washing. Ongoing environmental challenges continue to affect people, particularly those living in informal sites and tent camps.

Since February 2023, CARE has been delivering humanitarian aid to the region – clothing, tents, mattresses, blankets, and food, along with cash assistance, hygiene kits, and portable sanitation facilities. But given the scale of destruction, people are still in desperate need of emergency assistance and help in re-building their resilience and livelihoods.

The room Bulent and his family use now as a shelter used to be an open space, just under the awning of what used to be the kitchen.

Their old kitchen is severely damaged and not stable enough, so they now use it only to store some of their belongings, food, and some clothes.

But using his savings and with some support from his neighbors, Bulent built three walls around the awning and turned it into a decent room.

CARE helped rehabilitate the roof of the newly-built room, and helped reconstruct the bathroom.

“The new bathroom made a big difference in our life,” Bulent says. “I feel more human now. Before, I did not feel comfortable going out of the house in the state I was. Now, I can face the world with dignity.”

He’s recently started attending the University of Hatay to obtain the permit needed to work as a mathematician at a nearby school.

“This is my only chance to be able to provide for my family,” he says. “I have been teaching private lessons to the children of this village for years. I used to teach about 15 high school students. I haven’t been able to resume teaching as many residents either moved away or have lost their lives. As a result, I don’t have any income now.”

Along with help for the roof and the bathroom, CARE teams have also provided Bulent and his family cash for winterization, hygiene kits, and protection services to ensure they will be referred to other groups as needed.

“It seems like a luxury to be able to think about the future,” he says. “People outside Hatay tend to forget, but I won’t. I try to take one day at a time and stay strong. It’s crucial that people are aware of what we’re going through because more support is needed,” he says.

‘My wish is to live like a normal person’

Abu Mahmoud gathers plastic outside his makeshift tent in Afrin. Photo: Syria Relief/CARE

Every morning in Afrin, a city in northern Syria, Abu Mahmoud gathers plastic water bottles from a large garbage container next to his tent. He then burns them in a stove inside his makeshift tent.

The 56-year-old father of twelve is aware of the great health risks associated with breathing emissions of burned plastic, but avoiding this practice is not an option.

This is the only reliable way for him to keep his family warm in the extreme cold.

According to a recent updated by OCHA, most people in Syria cannot afford the skyrocketing costs of winter clothes, which have increased by 100 percent compared to last year. In addition, diesel stove prices went up around 175 percent compared to last year. Power supply, diesel and firewood continue to be unavailable or very expensive in the private market, and, as a result, many vulnerable people like Abu Mahmoud are reportedly burning plastic and garbage for heating.

This is not Abu Mahmoud’s first experience with displacement. Four years ago, the war forced him to leave his home and farming fields in the western Aleppo countryside.

“I had a house and worked on my land to secure bread and a living for my family,” he says. “I even helped the people in need as our area had received displaced people from other provinces. We hosted them and shared bread with them.”

After the earthquake, he and his family were displaced again after their home collapsed.

“I thought it was the last night of the earth. I could hear screams from everywhere around me,” he recalls. “Everyone was rushing to the streets. The wall inside my children’s room collapsed, and they were trapped under it. We had to dig with our hands and feet to get members of my family out.”

After Feb. 6, Abu Mahmoud and his family found themselves in the street with nothing but the clothes they wore, having nowhere to go. They set up a makeshift tent and this is where they live one year after the earthquakes.

“If we stay in the tent for another year, the rain and cold in the winter and the heat in summer will eventually kill us.”

Abu Mahmoud is just one of approximately 4.1 million people in northwest Syria who are in urgent need of lifesaving assistance. 1.9 million people live in over 1,500 camps or self-settled sites with limited predictable access to heating, clean water or other necessities, around 80 percent of whom are women and children and particularly vulnerable to many risks, including gender-based violence.

“With this earthquake, we went from bad to worse,” Abu Mahmoud says. “We suffer from the mud, the cold, and the rain. This is the reality here. We light a fire in a makeshift stove inside the tent, which could cause cancer. We use plastic bottles for heating because we cannot afford fuel. And as if this was not enough, we hear that humanitarian aid will stop.”

As of December 2023, the 2023 Humanitarian Response Plan for Syria, which asks for $5.41 billion, is only a third funded. This year saw the reduction of funding for World Food Program and its partners in northwest Syria by 50 percent, resulting in a scale-down of the operation.

At the same time, the price of food baskets in Syria has doubled in 2023 and food insecurity is at an all-time high with four in five Syrians in the northwest being deemed food insecure.

In addition to food insecurity, underfunding is expected to have implications across all sectors. For example, shelter and winterization cash assistance may be spent on food rather than fuel or shelter support. As a result, already vulnerable populations may turn to negative coping strategies, including buying food on debt, or selling assets, child labor, and skipping meals or reducing consumption.

“If the services of non-governmental organizations stop, it will be a humanitarian disaster. People will be desperate, and they will be forced to steal just to feed their children. Where will we go? What will we do? We are facing a disaster bigger than the earthquake, and this time it will be caused by humans.”

In 2023, Abu Mahmoud received winter cash assistance from Syria Relief, one of CARE’s partners. “When I received this cash assistance, I felt like a human, and I couldn’t believe I had money in my pocket. I bought necessities for the tent and paid off part of my debts to the local store.

“My wish is to live like a normal person. I don’t want to be rich, and I don’t want to be very poor. We are now living in conditions below zero,” says Abu Mahmoud.

Gassen outside his home. Photo: Tarek Satea/CARE

Gassen, 58, from Syria, lives with his family in Reyhanli in the Hatay district, near Türkiye’s border with Syria.

He is a father of six: two daughters and four sons. His two daughters and one of his sons are married and live with their families, while Gassen lives with the rest of his family in Reyhanli.

One of his sons, Yussef, 30, is disabled since 2012, after he sustained a serious injury in his head during the war. Among them, there are also four grandchildren, with the youngest one being only one month old, and the oldest being 10 years old.

During the earthquake of the early morning Feb. 6, Maram, age 8, died.

“Everything was difficult before the earthquake; but after it, everything is just worse. It is hard to find a place to rent, everything is very expensive and there are no jobs,” says Gassen who himself used to work as a teacher back in Syria, while he also had farms of cotton, apricot, and figs.

The limited availability of sustainable shelter solutions, livelihood opportunities and the emergence of the new temporary settlement sites suggest to groups like CARE that humanitarian needs will persist for the long-term.

This puts pressure on people with special needs, the elderly, youth, persons with disabilities and those at high protection risk.

“Everyone who can support vulnerable families should be here,” Gassen says. “May people have compassion and show mercy. Many families have nothing left. We only want to live with dignity. We don’t have big dreams anymore.

“It is too dark to dream.”

Gönül and Pars. Photo: Tarek Satea/CARE

Back in Samandağ, Gönül sleeps in a tent, in a small yard next to the container where her daughters, Idil and Merve, sleep with Merve’s two children, an eight-month-old baby and a four-year-old child.

This small yard is the first place Idil and Gönül ran to, immediately after the earthquake on the cold night of Feb. 6.

They arrived in their pajamas, barefoot, without even wearing a pair of socks. Gönül’s friend, Suzan*, hosted them for two months in the small kitchen room of the café, which remained intact.

The rest of the family arrived later.

“I will tell you a funny story,” Gönül says as Pars, a stray cat she has come to call her best friend, curls up in her lap on the wooden chair.

“One night, I went out to look for leftovers in the garbage bins right on the street. A man approached me and said, ‘Oh dear, are you really that hungry?’

“I could not believe my ears. ‘It is for the cats!’” she says and bursts into laughter.

“I can stay hungry, but the cats must not!”

Before the earthquake, Gönül says she used to cook food for more than 50 stray cats and dogs in her neighborhood. Now, she feeds around 10 cats, but Pars has a special place in her heart.

“I love him so much. Unfortunately, I cannot let him come inside the container as we need to keep it as clean as possible to make sure my daughter will not get an infection.”

Before the earthquake, Idil underwent bone-marrow transplant surgery, and she is still healing. Once a week, they have to find a way to travel from Samandağ to Adana, which is more than a three-hour drive, for Idil’s treatment and monitoring.

As of October 2023, 31 percent of neighborhoods in Hatay report continued disruption to transportation services, so this is an ongoing concern for families like Gönül’s who need to travel for medical reasons and appointments quite often.

“It will take years for my daughter to heal, and she needs to have another surgery soon,” Gönül says. “I cannot even think about how things will be in the future.”

The family receives 3,000 Turkish liras from the Ministry of Family and Social Services of Türkiye, an allowance for people with a disability. Until the end of March 2024, they also receive 5,000 liras per month, an allowance provided for one year by the government of Türkiye for people whose houses were assessed as medium or heavily damaged.

“In the first months after the earthquake, there was more support. Now, aid is decreasing. People really want to work, but there are no jobs available. The decrease in aid will affect many families here who rely primarily on humanitarian assistance.”

To help, CARE supports Gönül and her family with cash vouchers. With this assistance, Gönül can buy detergent and disinfectants, laundry washing powder, and other hygiene necessities, as well as food such as eggs, cheese, bread, and vegetables.

“The people of Samandağ have been through a lot,” she says. “But I still believe we will recover. Losing hope is not an option. We hope that more aid will come. I simply want one day to wake up at 6 a.m. again and have my coffee on the balcony.”

*Names changed to protect identities

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