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Syrians after the Earthquake: ‘They Have Given Up Hope’

Turkey is home to around 3.7 million Syrian refugees who fled a brutal war to start their lives again. Now they face another catastrophe- the earthquake, so IBB is stepping in to help.

It wasn’t pain that Hani Hammadeh saw as he delivered aid to Syrians in Turkey last month. Nor desperation among families whose lives were destroyed by the double earthquakes that flattened towns and villages across southern Turkey and northern Syria last month, claiming over 50,000 lives. “I didn’t see anything, not even gratitude,” says Hammadeh. “There was no reaction; they were just numb.”

Hammadeh secured funding from Ideas Beyond Borders to support Syrian victims of the 7.8-magnitude earthquake that struck near the Turkish city of Gaziantep on February 6, causing a wave of destruction that extended across an area of more than 500 kilometers. As the scale of the catastrophe became clear, IBB allocated an emergency budget, partnering with our Innovators in Turkey to support Syrians whose refugee status limits their ability to access support or rebuild their lives.

“The earthquakes were a disaster for the whole country, but for Syrian refugees in Turkey, the impact is particularly acute,” says Faisal Al Mutar, President of Ideas Beyond Borders. “After surviving a brutal war, migration and now a natural disaster, they are back in the rubble, faced with the daunting task of starting again once more.”

Refugee camp for people affected by the earthquake
Hani Hammadeh, delivering supplies to a refugee camp

Uncertain Future after the Earthquake

Syrians in Turkey have been disproportionately affected by the earthquake and face even more uncertainty as they confront the future. Many survived on odd jobs before the disaster and now have no means of earning a living, with local economies at a standstill in towns and cities that are uninhabitable. While Turkish survivors can seek work in the country’s northern provinces, Syrian refugees must stick to the places they were registered in or risk deportation.

Majd Albasha is another Innovation Hub grantee offering support to the Syrian community. After surviving a perilous crossing to escape the war at home, he built a new life in Turkey, founding a business and providing employment to other Syrian refugees in Istanbul. With IBB support, he is creating two new vacancies for Syrians who lost their livelihoods in the earthquake.

“The way I see it, this is two families that will be given another chance at rebuilding their lives here. They are living through a nightmare, so we will focus on providing them with psychosocial support as well as help them find a home, furniture, and other necessities.”

His family was asleep at their home in Istanbul when the earthquake hit. “We woke up and heard the news. It was an awful thing to see.” They ran around the house gathering clothes and household items, whatever they could donate. “We are still shocked. For weeks I couldn’t let my daughter sleep in her room in case something happened, and I needed to act fast.”

Lack of Opportunities

Even before the earthquake, life was difficult for Syrians in Turkey, where many lack work permits and live below the poverty line. Turkey hosts the world’s largest number of Syrian refugees – around 3.6 million – but attitudes have hardened over the past five years as the war in Syria drags on, and most find themselves unable to return home. Instead, they endure second-class status in a country that increasingly resents their presence.

“We have every kind of challenge from racism and discrimination to lack of work and no freedom of movement around the country,” says Albasha, who has heard multiple accounts of abusive language targeting Syrians accessing aid. “Now it’s even worse. There is nothing for them, the situation is so bad,” he says.

IBB’s grant will pay the salaries of two new employees at Albasha’s digital marketing company Apollo Agency for six months and cover the cost of their social security. “It gives them access to enter the job market here, which is incredibly competitive, so it’s a good push for them to build better lives in Turkey.”

But for many, this is now an impossible dream. Families sleeping in tents, train carriages, and the ruins of mosque courtyards have little hope beyond immediate survival in the chaotic aftermath of massive destruction. In recent weeks, over 40,000 Syrians have returned to rebel-held northern Syria, where the situation remains volatile, and around 4.1 million people relied on aid even before the earthquake struck.

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The Outlook in Syria

It’s a sign of how desperate things are. Efforts to get aid to help survivors in Syria, where an estimated 6,000 people were killed in the earthquake, have faltered in the face of political wrangling with the Assad regime. Huthayfa Abduljabbar is trying to get aid across the border from Iraq into Syria to support survivors in Aleppo, where the ravages of war are hard to distinguish from the destruction caused by the earthquake.

In many cases, whole families were buried under multistorey buildings, with just a few survivors pulled from the rubble. “There are many people living in small tents with a kid from one family, the adults from another, and more children from third and fourth families. It’s like a puzzle,” says Abduljabbar.

The food boxes he distributes contain detergents, first aid kits, and food and other necessities to support up to 300 families. “Their situation is dire, there is little food, no hygiene and nothing to clean their wounds. Hardly anyone is helping them.”

Politics over People

The UN has been widely criticized for waiting to secure Syrian government permission before sending international aid to opposition areas almost a week after the earthquake, leaving families to dig their relatives out of the rubble. Since then, NGOs and aid groups have been trying to get support into northern Syria, but there have been reports of convoys being stopped and their supplies seized at checkpoints.

According to Amnesty International, the Syrian government and Turkey-backed opposition groups blocked at least 130 trucks carrying food, medical supplies and tents from reaching Kurdish-majority neighborhoods in Aleppo.

“The earthquakes have pushed tens of thousands of people in Aleppo who were already struggling due to a decade-long armed conflict into further deprivation. Yet even in this moment of desperation, the Syrian government and armed opposition groups have pandered to political considerations and taken advantage of people’s misery to advance their own agendas,” said Aya Majzoub, Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for the Middle East and North Africa.

Lifestraw, a water filtration company that supplies systems designed for low-resource and humanitarian settings, has already sent over 1000 filtration systems to Turkey, but reaching survivors in Syria is proving more complicated. “There is a huge need, and that’s going to remain the case for a while because so much infrastructure has been destroyed,” says Tara MacDowell, senior manager of social impact at Lifestraw. The company has received an IBB grant to send its systems to Syria after managing to secure access, despite significant challenges as the regime continues to prioritize political gain over the lives of its population. “They will be shipped this week,” MacDowell says.

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A Lifestraw in action

Uncertain future

A month on, hope for loved ones lost in the rubble in Turkey has waned. Rescue workers have stopped pulling bodies from the debris and handed them over to excavators who are sifting through more than 200,000 buildings that have been damaged or destroyed. The World Bank has placed the immediate cost in Turkey at $34.2 billion, but there is no estimate for the toll on Syrian survivors, whose outlook remains uncertain as they consider what comes next.

“The Syrians worked hard to rebuild their lives in Turkey. Most of them work long hours to buy just enough food to survive. Now their lives have been destroyed again, and many have given up hope,” Hani Hammadeh says. “I’ve seen this in humans, after long exposure to tragedy, they start to feel nothing – they aren’t sad or angry or hungry. Nothing shows on their faces. They are just numb.”

There have been reports that Syrians are being sidelined by the Turkish government in the distribution of aid to earthquake victims. Still, Hammadeh, a Syrian refugee himself, says the reality is more complicated. “The crisis is just so big, and there is not enough aid to go around. There are many reasons why refugees aren’t getting the help they need. Syrians are nobody’s priority.”

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