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As a Syrian abroad, the earthquake has shaken me to my core

‘I feel the guilt of privilege: The privilege of now experiencing tragedy remotely, of being confronted with it through the news, rather than living it.’

Sunset on earthquake destruction in silhouette Rami Alsayed/NurPhoto
The aftermath of the 6 February earthquakes that rocked southern Türkiye and Syria as seen in the town of Jinderes, northern Syria.

I woke up confused in my Chicago bed last Monday morning, trying to grasp these words from my husband: “It’s horrifying. People have perished. Pray.”

“The earthquake,” he said frantically, and I realised what he was talking about, what I had barely noticed in the news the night before: The 7.8-magnitude earthquake that had struck Türkiye and Syria – the home country I left nine years ago. 

I grabbed my phone and started scrolling through social media. The first image I came across was of a dead father holding his son in his arms, under the rubble of a collapsed building. It was captioned: “The last hug.”

I paused, I’m not sure for how long. But then I kept scrolling through scenes that were nothing less than horrifying. Images of destruction, of bodies, of mourning children and pleading parents, of fear, pain, despair, and death. They were 10,000 kilometres away, but it didn’t feel that way.

More than a week after the earthquake (which turned out to be two earthquakes, and aftershocks), the death toll has passed 40,000. Many more are injured, and millions of people are likely now homeless.

For millions of Syrians, the toll feels especially acute after nearly 12 years of war and displacement. With 5.6 million registered Syrian refugees around the world, many know that those most affected in Syria had already been uprooted from their homes, living in tents and flimsy shelters. We know that in the rebel-held northwest, where more than 4 million people live, at least half have already been forced from their homes at least once by war. Aid has been slow to get there, and much of the infrastructure, including hospitals, was already destroyed by the war.

Everyone we knew had a tragic story. By the end of the day, my Facebook feed had turned into a heartbreaking space for grieving and calls for help.

And even in parts of Syria controlled by President Bashar al-Assad, like Aleppo – where I’m from – people are also suffering, and also trying to recover from the long years of war. 

Unanswered calls

My husband and I spent the first day after the quakes calling and messaging family members and loved ones in Aleppo and across the border in Gaziantep, the Turkish city that is home to around 500,000 Syrian refugees. 

Many of our calls went unanswered, and when we finally got a hold of relatives in Aleppo, they told us they’d been sheltering in their car since the quakes. They said many other people were in the streets in the freezing cold – some because they’d lost their homes, others because they were too afraid to go back in case there were more earthquakes or aftershocks. 

Everyone we knew had a tragic story. By the end of the day, my Facebook feed had turned into a heartbreaking space for grieving and calls for help. It was filled with images of the dead, the missing, the wounded, and the stranded.

One Facebook friend was pleading for any information about his wife and sons in Türkiye, who he couldn’t reach because mobile networks were down.

When I checked back with him in the evening, he told me his wife had been killed, along with one son, and that another son was still missing.

I was crushed, but desperately kept scrolling for just one story of hope, one happy ending. I found none. The amount of bad news we've received since then is overwhelming. I’ve lost track of which friends have died, and which are still alive. 

I spoke to a close friend in Aleppo who told me she hadn’t slept for three nights. She was too afraid to close her eyes.

“After 12 years of war, we thought nothing could terrorise us anymore,” she said. “At least those who’ve died can rest in peace. But those who survived will never be the same.”

The burden of diaspora 

It’s hard work to be Syrian living in the diaspora, at least it has been for me. I carry a burden with me everywhere – the eagerness to be heard and seen, alongside a profound sense of defeat, helplessness, responsibility, and often disappointment in humanity.

Above all, I feel the guilt of privilege: The privilege of now experiencing tragedy remotely, of being confronted with it through the news, rather than living it.

This comes with an impulse to act; I feel a burning urge to shout out loud, to make sure the world knows about the earthquake, and how profoundly it has impacted Syrians like me.

This new disaster, these pictures, and the feelings they have brought up are painfully familiar, calling back long-repressed memories and unhealed trauma from a past I never really left behind. 

I’ve been talking about it to every person I come across. Every friend, every colleague, even strangers.

Four days after the earthquake, I walked into a grocery store. The clerk asked, as she probably asks everyone, how I was doing. “I’m coping,” I replied, intensely. She paused. “The earthquake, you know,” I said to her. “It’s heartbreaking.” 

I walked away slowly, as she silently stared at me.

Starting over, pulled back

When I left Aleppo for the US, I vowed to never look back. I wanted to let go of all the parts of me, of my Syrian identity, which had become so deeply ingrained with oppression, tragedy, and war. I wanted to start over, to construct a new identity and claim a new home, one to which belonging is not so painful. But the harder I try to disconnect from Syria, the more attached I become. 

Syrians need a global humanitarian response that isn’t about politics, and is just about serving the victims of this massive humanitarian crisis.

This new disaster, these pictures, and the feelings they have brought up are painfully familiar, calling back long-repressed memories and unhealed trauma from a past I never really left behind. The news of the earthquake shook me to the core, reminding me of just how deeply connected I am to the place, the people, and my homeland. 

Now I keep wondering what else I can do to help. Many say “pray and donate” is the only option Syrians in the diaspora have. But Syrians need much more than that. They need humanity. They need a global humanitarian response that isn’t about politics, and is just about serving the victims of this massive humanitarian crisis. 

I am not a particularly optimistic person, and it’s especially hard to find anything to be positive about during these times.. But as a Syrian, hopelessness has always been a major part of my story. I want to get past that, at least for now. 

That’s why I’m still looking, still scrolling, for moments of light: acts of solidarity from across the world, images of smiling rescued children, miraculous stories of survival, heroic acts of rescue. They show that humans can be good, and that there is another, lesser told, part of the Syrian story: It’s one of resistance, determination, and existence, against all odds.

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