Surviving the Türkiye/Syria earthquakes: trauma and adapted peacebuilding
Sawssan Abou-Zahr describes the impact of the 6 February Türkiye/Syria earthquakes on the mental health and work of surviving local peacebuilders.
As I was working on this article, I felt a strong tremor. I thought it was an illusion until I noticed my laptop shaking – it was yet another earthquake, two weeks after the massive quakes that devastated Türkiye and Syria in early February. It was terrifying. In Beirut, many, including me, expected a blast like the 2020 port explosion, which caused the ground to shake violently.
The earthquakes and their aftershocks have compounded existing trauma across the region, particularly for refugees. In Lebanon, refugees who had fled harrowing conflict in Syria now mourned relatives lost to the quakes, and donated the little they have to affected people. My Syrian peacebuilder friends in Britain and Germany raised funds, struggling with survivor’s guilt.
Since the first earthquake, the total death toll steadily increased to over 55,000 people by mid-March. Almost 48,000 lives were lost in Türkiye, including Syrian nationals, and an additional 6,000 people died in Syria.
These numbers include activists who, after escaping tyranny and atrocities back home and working for peaceful change, perished in Türkiye. Tasneem Hammoudi, originally from Aleppo in Syria, passed away with her three children, parents, brother and his family in Antakya, Türkiye.
I had met her at a regional forum on women, peace and security in Istanbul in 2013. She told me that peacebuilding in Syria meant financially and politically empowering women, even before transitional justice and reconciliation. That’s more valid than ever.
Destruction in Kilis, South Central Türkiye. Provided by Kareemat team.
Luckily, numerous peacebuilders survived. They are supporting their communities despite being traumatised, and internally displaced.
Najlaa Sheekh, initially from northwestern Syria, spent three sleepless nights with extended family members in an overcrowded tent under heavy rain and freezing temperatures in Kilis, Türkiye.
They returned to her brother’s damaged house because the cold was “killing us”. A strong aftershock forced them to move again, to her parents’ place, albeit unsafe too. “If we had to die, let it be under a warm, though shaking, roof,” she told me.
Najlaa described resuming work as an “act of faith”, “an antidote to death”. Her team at Kareemat, a women-led NGO, depended on her: “they must be safe, fed and warm to help others.”
Her peacebuilding plans were put on hold because humanitarian relief was a more pressing priority; Najlaa realised women and girls lacked sanitary pads, and sought to provide these basic gendered supplies that the male-oriented aid kits lack.
She also used her communication skills and connections to raise money for food and blankets for many in Kilis, in addition to tents for survivors in Jindires, which previously hosted internally displaced people but is now the most damaged city in Northern Syria.
She remains sleepless during “scary nights”, she said, on the verge of tears. I noted she seems more traumatised now than when previously discussing her younger son miraculously escaping death in Syria. She admitted feeling paralysed by “the haunting fear of thousands violent aftershocks, a constant reminder that the catastrophe is not over. This is not [just] any traumatic disorder, we need disaster-tailored mental health programmes. I survived brutal bombings, and the horrors of the earthquake are much worse.”
She imitated the terrifying sounds that shaking earth produced. Taimaa Marrawi’s voice quivered too when she described that terrifying noise.
Destruction in Jindires, Northern Syria. Photo by Kareemat.
Leaving home, again
Taimaa is a Syrian peacebuilder and human resources manager, and is mourning colleagues who died in Antakya.
She spent the first hours after the earthquake jammed in a car with family members and neighbours, in Gazientep, Türkiye; then some nights at a sports facility hosting more than 1,000 people, all struggling with cold and fear.
As soon as they could, Taimaa and her mother flew to Istanbul where her brother lives. However, she is still on edge.
She recalled her experience fleeing Aleppo bitterly: “Ten years ago we left our home without means of survival, fleeing shelling and bombs; the earthquake awakened our trauma; another tragedy.”
“We expected to return to Syria in six months,” she added. “We remain in exile a decade later. Once more, we abandoned our house in a rush. Aleppo is out of reach for us, but will we able to go back to Gazientep, where our building is badly damaged?”
Despite being so traumatised, Taimaa also couldn’t sit back. She chose to help survivors in Jindires and Afrin, left behind by the Assad regime and international community, who needed tents, heaters, food; and most importantly, moral support and protection from abuse.
Prior to the earthquake, Taimaa was involved in a project aiming to protect female Syrians in displacement camps from sexual abuse by aid employees. Girls as young as seven years old, as well as teenagers, women and the elderly, are sometimes exploited to receive food and medical assistance.
Taimaa’s project trains women to defend their rights to receive support without conditions or exploitation. This protection is essential now, as the number of people lacking shelter has tripled, she estimates, fearing the presence of some abusers among relief volunteers.
Najlaa shares similar concerns, advocating against the early marriage of Syrian girls in Kilis. In February 2022, Kareemat conducted a survey of 500 people and found that 48 percent of the women interviewed were married at an early age for economic reasons which were disguised as religious. Najlaa contacted six clerics for help; only one responded. He trained Kareemat’s team on how to properly address their audience regarding marriage in Islam.
After months of heated sessions, they changed the minds of some fathers. Their daughters, including a thirteen-year-old, were rescued from becoming child brides.
Although Najlaa takes pride in that achievement, she fears the earthquake’s aftermath brings matters back to ground zero. Recalling her nights in that tent, she explains that “females lack any privacy; and more men would give young daughters to marriage, thinking they are protecting them from potential abuse, only to hand them to hidden abusers.”
Future of peacebuilding
Asked how she envisions post-earthquake peacebuilding, Najlaa said relief remains a priority, as many Syrians will likely be confined to tents for months. Further, peacebuilding should be more sensitive to women’s needs, risks and opportunities. Her answer reminded me of the late Tasneem.
Taimaa suggested preset plans could not be resumed before early 2024. She was involved in an online training of women inside Syria which focused on human rights and non-violent activism. “It is not a priority for someone who [has] lost everything, once more,” she said.
Those women are vulnerable, again, and peacebuilding must – and has begun to, in-person and virtually – support their mental health. Taimaa herself is taking part in online sessions.
Although there might be a short-term setback for other peacebuilding objectives, as people are still on edge and insecure, Taimaa suggested the horrors of the earthquake could change the perspectives of many.
More people have learned, through devastating experience, that life is too precious. She expects the women she trained, once recovered, would be more eager to acquire new skills and become agents of peace.