1. Home
  2. Middle East and North Africa
  3. Syria

Quake survivors in northwest Syria feel abandoned amid aid cuts and glacial rebuild

‘Everything is gone.’

This is a wide angle shot taken from below showing a building that is partially collapsed. At the bottom right of the building Badr al-Din Bakro, 75, places his hand over a half fallen apart wall. Moawia Attrash/TNH
Badr al-Din Bakro inspects the damage to his home in the Idlib village of al-Alani. One year after the quakes, it is still awaiting demolition.

Related stories

One year after deadly earthquakes destroyed entire villages in northern Syria, tens of thousands of people who were displaced by the disaster still have nowhere to call home, as local conflict intensifies but international attention points elsewhere and aid funding dwindles.

The days and weeks after the 6 February disaster were chaotic in southern Türkiye and northern Syria, with people scrambling to both take shelter and help however they could. The death toll eventually rose to more than 55,000 between the two countries.

Twelve months in, Türkiye has slowly begun the process of reconstructing its destroyed cities and towns, although there are questions about the pace and who will be eligible for new homes, with many people still in camps. In northwest Syria, a part of the country that is controlled by groups who oppose the government of President Bashar al-Assad, there is no widespread rebuilding. The quakes worsened a severe housing crisis in a part of the country that was already a hotspot of need: It is home to more than 4.5 million people, including 2.9 million people who have been forcibly displaced over the course of Syria’s almost 13-year war. An estimated 800,000 people in the region live in tents.

According to figures provided by the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, around 73,000 people displaced by the earthquakes in the northwest went to “reception centres”, which include collective shelters and informal camps. A year later, 40,500 people remain.

Many survivors feel abandoned and wonder if they will ever be able to get back on their feet.

Badr al-Din Bakro, 75, saved for years to provide his family with a home in the west Idlib village of al-Alani. It was gone in a night. “The ground began to shake while we were sleeping,” he recalled.

Badr al-Din Bakro, 75, is pictured sitting outside a tent that is serving as a temporary home. He is looking at his phone.
Moawia Atrash/TNH
Bakro, who lives in this tent, says he doesn’t have money to rebuild his home, and no aid group has offered to help.

His children and extended family of 20 now all sleep in a group of tents not far from the ruins of his home, which was so damaged by the earthquakes that it is scheduled for demolition. After years of war and economic collapse, the farmer now relies on aid to get by. He doesn’t have the money to rebuild, and no one has offered to help.

“I feel very sad about the memories I have in this house, which I worked all my life to build,” Bakro said. “Now everything is gone.”

Money woes

Immediately after the earthquakes, roads were blocked by rubble, aid hubs were hit hard by the quakes, and it took days — some say far too long — for critical help to reach people in need. 

Now, aid groups say their main challenge is money.

In mid-February, the UN issued a $397.6 million “flash appeal” to assist millions of people in the first few months after the quakes. The disaster dominated headlines, and donor countries gave almost all of the requested money.

But the UN’s much bigger annual ask for the aid it coordinates across Syria — $5.41 billion for 2023 — is only $37.8% funded. This has meant cuts across the board, including in food rations.

Aid officials worry the worst is yet to come.

Oliver Smith, senior operations officer at UNHCR, the UN’s refugee agency, told The New Humanitarian that UN agencies and its partner NGOs in northwest Syria had provided tents to almost 27,000 households since the earthquakes, helped some 83,000 people with mostly “minor and moderate” repairs to shelter, and assisted 17,600 families — including people displaced by both the earthquakes and conflict — with “dignified shelter”. This means spaces like caravans, but not new homes. 

Three people stand on top of rubble.
Moawia Atrash/TNH
Khaled al-Fattah’s home collapsed in the earthquakes, killing his mother. The 28-year-old father of one and his extended family are sheltering in tents amongst the rubble in the Idlib village of al-Tuloul.

Why haven’t more people received the help they need? “Having enough resources is the big impediment to whether or not there is enough to help everybody,” Smith said. “The situation still requires significant investment from the international community.”

Making things worse, he added, is the fact that “donors have signified that there will be decreased support [to UN-coordinated Syria appeals] in 2024 due to decreased resources and competing priorities".

Amany Qaddour, regional director of the NGO Syria Relief and Development, which works in the north, pointed out that “funding was already dwindling right before the earthquake”.

The surge of funding that came in immediately after the disaster was only for a temporary period, and provided food, tents, and other emergency items. But it wasn’t long, Qaddour said, before projections of funding were dire again. “The slogan has been ‘you are going to have to do more with less’,” she said.

No real rebuilding

People like Bakro said they have received some aid, mostly food and tents. But what many want is help to rebuild their homes, and that does not seem likely to come anytime soon. 

Any kind of longer-term building is politically fraught, given the position of some major donors not to fund reconstruction in Syria until there is political transition away from al-Assad, and the complications of states engaging with groups that run the northwest, including the sanctioned Hayat Tahrir al-Sham. Türkiye has proposed large-scale construction inside Syria for refugees, but there are concerns about potential forced returns and “demographic engineering”.

This is a photo showing the front of a truck carrying wooden beams. On top are two people, one of them is handing the beams to people below.
Moawia Atrash/TNH
New homes for earthquake survivors are going up in the Idlib town of Armanaz, funded by the Molham Volunteering Team.

In any case, aid groups point out, assistance to northwest Syria before and after the quakes is mostly still what is classified as “humanitarian”. Even after 13 years, given the earthquakes, economic crisis, and a recent increase in bombing by al-Assad and his Russian allies, there hasn’t been a real shift to “development”.

“You are in a protracted conflict looking at early recovery projects, but at the same time you have to fund basic humanitarian needs,” said Qaddour. “The financial situation isn’t good overall, and it is really hard to prioritise when you are thinking about early recovery programmes, and just being able to get people food, safe shelter, and water.”

That doesn’t mean there aren’t any new buildings going up, it is just limited in scope.

Muhammed al-Sheikh, shelter officer at the Molham Volunteering Team, said his local NGO began to collect donations almost immediately after the earthquakes to build new homes for people who lost their homes.

This week, it plans to open its first new development, of 352 apartments, in the hard-hit Idlib town of Harem. It is still building another 368 apartments in the nearby town of Armanaz.

The hope, al-Sheikh told The New Humanitarian, is to “restore what was destroyed by the earthquake so people can move on to this disaster”. But that’s easier said than done, he added. “There are many people who cannot forget the painful memories, because most lost a loved one, their home, or so many other things.”

Beyond housing

While housing may be the most visible need, it is far from the only one. Homes were lost, but so were jobs, hospitals, infrastructure, and an already fragile sense of safety.

Nafi al-Sattouf, 77, has been a farmer all his working life. That ended with the earthquakes, which caused the Orontes River to flood into the agricultural lands of al-Alani, the same village where Bakro lives.

Nafi al-Sattouf, 77, sits on a rock near the banks of a river. He holds a wooden stick with his right hand.
Moawia Atrash/TNH
Nafi al-Sattouf’s home withstood the earthquakes, but he can longer cultivate his land.

While his home is still standing, he no longer has a source of income for his wife and five children. “We were already in a very weak financial position, and most of what we ate comes from the land that we cultivate,” he explained. “We have appealed to many NGOs to rehabilitate the land for us, but to no avail.”

Even aid groups focused on displacement point out that it isn’t just about housing. Funding shortages and long-term displacement have other consequences.

“People will be without adequate shelter and be at increased risk of exploitation and abuse, having to resort to seriously harmful coping mechanisms, putting kids to work, taking them out of school, and other ways that will be more harmful to them,” said UNHCR's Smith.

Smith also highlighted the fact that they will continue to suffer from the trauma of the earthquakes and repeated displacements: "The psychosocial needs are increasingly becoming as important as the shelter needs.”

With additional reporting by Annie Slemrod. Edited by Annie Slemrod and Andrew Gully.

Share this article

Get the day’s top headlines in your inbox every morning

Starting at just $5 a month, you can become a member of The New Humanitarian and receive our premium newsletter, DAWNS Digest.

DAWNS Digest has been the trusted essential morning read for global aid and foreign policy professionals for more than 10 years.

Government, media, global governance organisations, NGOs, academics, and more subscribe to DAWNS to receive the day’s top global headlines of news and analysis in their inboxes every weekday morning.

It’s the perfect way to start your day.

Become a member of The New Humanitarian today and you’ll automatically be subscribed to DAWNS Digest – free of charge.

Become a member of The New Humanitarian

Support our journalism and become more involved in our community. Help us deliver informative, accessible, independent journalism that you can trust and provides accountability to the millions of people affected by crises worldwide.