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‘I couldn’t just stand by’: Syrians step up with earthquake aid despite pressures

‘I’m not healthy enough to help the rescue efforts, but I’ll give everything I have.’

Syrian father Nader Fadil, who lost his wife and two of his children in the earthquake, walks with his sister near the rubble of damaged buildings in Jableh, Syria February 12, 2023. Yamam al Shaar/Reuters
Nader Fadil, who lost his wife and two of his children in last week’s earthquakes, walks with his sister near the rubble of damaged buildings in the coastal Syrian city of Jableh, on 12 February 2023.

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One week on from last week’s massive earthquakes, ordinary people across Syria – including in the large parts controlled by President Bashar al-Assad’s forces – have been scrambling to marshal whatever help they can for survivors, offering up their homes, supplies, and skills. 

While many of the areas al-Assad controls are further from the epicentres than the rebel-held northwest, the government-run region has still reported 1,414 deaths, and more than 92,000 people are staying in shelters there, according to UN figures.

On Monday, the overall death toll across Türkiye and Syria passed 36,000.

Nearly 12 years of conflict, and a crippling economic crisis compounded by Western sanctions, are complicating citizen-led aid efforts. There are limits to what people dealing with spiralling inflation, mass poverty, and record fuel shortages can do to help each other.

But – as is the case in Türkiye, where a rapid community response has been key to getting people through the first wintry days and nights after the earthquakes – that hasn’t stopped many Syrians from trying. 

Nour Othman, 29, works for a marketing company in Damascus. Hours after the first earthquake struck on 6 February, she found herself staring at heart-wrenching images of families buried under slabs of concrete, and wanted to do something.

Othman took to a 360,000-strong Syrian Facebook group usually used for job opportunities, home rentals, and community announcements. She placed a different sort of post: She asked for clothing, medicine, blankets, and canned food, using the Arabic hashtag #OneHeart.

The response was overwhelming. Within a few hours, donations began pouring in to her Damascus office, which she had posted as the drop-off point. She stopped working, converted the office into a makeshift warehouse, and within a day had collected 3,000 pieces of clothing, 15 boxes of medicine, and stacks of blankets. By the second day, Othman said, the total amount of aid weighed five tonnes. Volunteers have offered to drive them to those in need.

“I felt sad and totally helpless watching what the media was reporting… There were women and children screaming, and others trapped under the rubble. I couldn’t just stand by,” Othman told The New Humanitarian. “The initiative is called ‘One Heart’ because Syrians have learned to support each other and be of one heart through thick and thin,” she added.

Conflict fault lines and geopolitics 

Despite the initiative’s name, after more than a decade of war, the reality is that Syrians live in a deeply divided country. Parts – like Damascus, where Othman lives – are controlled by al-Assad and his forces. Much of the quake-hit northwest is controlled by rebel groups, including the terrorist-designated Hayat Tahrir al-Sham. The northeast, meanwhile, is run by Türkiye, Turkish-backed rebels, and Kurdish groups.

All of this has an impact on how international and local aid flows, or doesn’t flow, through the country. UN-coordinated aid to the northwest arrives across the border from Türkiye, while Damascus is the main hub for assistance within the rest of government-controlled Syria. 

Getting aid from Damascus to rebel-held territory has been extremely slow or a non-starter, although al-Assad officials and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) have said they are willing to deliver aid across the country. Late last week, the government approved an aid delivery across front lines to areas controlled by rebels in the northwest, but it is reportedly held up

Another of the issues that could delay direct relief to Syrians across the country is Western sanctions, although last week the United States said it was granting a temporary exemption to “all transactions related to earthquake relief” that would otherwise be banned by sanctions meant to target al-Assad and those close to him. 

A surge in support

For civilians collecting aid – like Othman – all of this means that the supplies she’s giving out will head only to the large parts of the country controlled by al-Assad.

That includes Jableh, a coastal city about 25 kilometres south of Latakia, where Nada al-Halabi lived in a four-storey building – until it crumbled in the earthquakes. Standing outside her building on 9 February, a few days after disaster struck, she told The New Humanitarian she was still in shock. Rescue teams had pulled 10 dead bodies from the heap of rubble; two children of families in the building were missing.

“At the moment of the earthquake, I was asleep. I only heard the sound of the earth roaring," said al-Halabi, wiping away a tear with a handkerchief.

In an 8 February news conference, Hussein Makhlouf, Syria’s minister of local administration and environment – the man charged with overseeing the government’s response – said 180 shelters would be set up across the country.

Local NGOs, the SARC, and UN agencies have been handing out hot meals and various relief supplies, but much of the early aid effort has been spearheaded by ordinary citizens like Othman.

In light of the country’s economic crisis, this is especially notable: Between 2010 and 2019, Syria’s GDP shrunk by more than half. The local currency lost 44% of its value in 2022, and food prices have nearly doubled over the past year. More than 90% of Syrians now live below the poverty line.

While people living in northern Syria have been the most impacted by the economic collapse, the situation has now become so bad that Syrians in places across the country that had been doing relatively well are now also feeling the pain.

While some help with goods, others are assisting with their professional skills.

Over the past week, Syrian civil engineers launched a group to provide free consultations for buildings damaged by the earthquake. They’re offering on-site inspections to assess if cracked structures are still safe to live in. For concerned residents looking for quick answers, the engineers are rushing to assess any photos they can send in.

The war, and years of sanctions, have decimated Syria’s stock of construction equipment and other machinery that may have helped with search and rescue, or later with reconstruction efforts. Fuel prices are also at an all-time high, and shortages mean there might not be enough to run the little equipment that is available.

To do his part, Jableh resident Abu Ayman al-Khaminsi gave his 30-year-old son his tractor and a demand: “Go clear rubble and find survivors!”

To power it amid the fuel shortages, al-Khaminsi syphoned off the diesel that was meant to heat his home. “I can’t use this diesel for warmth and keep my tractor parked here when there are people suffering,” al-Khaminsi said. “I’m not healthy enough to help the rescue efforts, but I’ll give everything I have.”

‘We’re meant to support one another’

Not everyone has a tractor or extra food to give, so they are doing what they can. Twenty-year-old Walaa Tamin has opened up her home in Latakia, the port city that was badly damaged by the earthquake.

“If anyone has no place to go, our house is open. We’re meant to support one another, and you are welcome here,” Tamin posted on Facebook. Similar offers are popping up across the country. Two families are now sleeping in Tamin’s living room. She told The New Humanitarian they choose to sleep closest to the exit in case there’s another earthquake.

There have also been locally-led blood drives, and one Damascus-based relief organisation said it was receiving money from expatriates to buy aid supplies. In Latakia, Ghazwan Muhammed, 34, set up a soup kitchen with three of his friends to get food out to hungry survivors. “We are all grieving right now,” he said.

This instinct to pitch in is shared by many.

While walking through the Damascus streets, Khaled Abu Wissam, 30, spotted the bustling “One Heart” dropsite set up by Othman. He had nothing to hand so he took off his winter jacket and tossed it in, despite the wintry weather and ice-cold rain.

“When I saw people handing over bags of donations, I couldn’t just go on my way,” Abu Wissam explained. “My Syrian brothers are freezing in the cold.”

This article was produced in collaboration with Egab, which connects journalists from the Middle East and North Africa with news organisations worldwide.

Edited by Annie Slemrod. 

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