A new earthquake struck the border area between Turkey and Syria the night of Feb. 20, sparking fear and anxiety for people already bereft and for those helping them since the Feb. 6 temblor. Six people were reported killed in the new quake.
With a magnitude of 6.4 and centered in the southern Turkish city of Antakya, the new earthquake shook the ground two weeks after a massive quake killed more than 47,000 people and destroyed hundreds of thousands of homes.
Catholic aid workers were rushing badly needed humanitarian help to the victims of Turkey and Syria’s deadly earthquakes, but with this latest earthquake to strike, they expressed concern over the lasting impact of loss for those deeply traumatized.
Andrea Avveduto, a psychologist on the ground in northwest Syria and director of communications for Pro Terra Sancta, told OSV News that "everyone is so afraid."
"It’s a very dramatic situation, especially for children," Avveduto said of his organization’s work in Aleppo in northwest Syria. "We are sending a group of psychologists specialized in post-traumatic stress to Syria because children are experiencing much trauma."
"Children don’t want to sleep or go to the bathroom alone and insist that their parents stay close by. They become very afraid when they hear any loud noise and they want to cling to their parents," Avveduto told OSV News.
He told the story of a 6-year-old Ibrahim, a blind boy, who was very terrified by the impact of the first earthquake. Everything crumbled around him. Sand was in his mouth and dust filled his nose. Ibrahim also tasted blood and then, as he reported, there was silence, followed by the sound of rain.
And yet, Ibrahim "immediately ran to our center, seeking shelter, food and some comfort," Avveduto said of the boy who managed to escape the devastation.
Besides the more than 47,000 people killed in the Feb. 6 quake, thousands more have been injured. Many say they are terrified at night, unable to sleep and fearful.
Pro Terra Sancta, based in Jerusalem, Rome and Milan, supports the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land. Since the start of the war in 2011, it has aided Franciscan fathers in Syria by opening four emergency centers in Damascus, Latakia, Aleppo, Knayeh and Yacoubieh, the latter places are found in northwest Syria.
"Unfortunately, we don’t have any information from the Franciscan friars in the villages of Knayeh and Yacoubieh. The communication lines are very bad, and we’ve had great difficulty trying to contact them," Avveduto explained. Adding to the woes of these predominantly Christian villages has been the presence of Islamist militants who are in control there.
Avveduto also expressed concern for villagers in Tulul and some other areas in the northwest facing a double disaster, as some villages have been deluged with water by the collapse of local levees due to the aftershocks.
"We know there is also a huge problem due to flooding. We think there are people under the destroyed buildings that would have drowned," Avveduto said.
"Meanwhile, we are looking for people still trapped underneath the collapsed buildings in Aleppo. Our emergency center provides food, blankets and medicines, and the needs are growing. We have more than 4,000 people daily coming for hot meals in Aleppo and the same in Latakia," he said of those displaced.
Some 2,500 are sheltering in the Terra Sancta College in Aleppo. First aid kits, blankets and clothes are being distributed.
Italian Cardinal Mario Zenari, apostolic nuncio in Syria, warned that "the worst thing that could happen to Syria, on top of the many other adversities, is to be forgotten."
Cardinal Zenari underscored the dire circumstances Syrians face saying that already "there are more than 13 million Syrians who have been affected by the war and require humanitarian assistance such as food and medicines." The cardinal shared his remarks with AVSI, an international humanitarian organization.
Cardinal Zenari has supported AVSI’s Open Hospitals, an initiative to address Syria’s health crisis by providing medical care for those living in poverty and aiding three nonprofit hospitals in Syria. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Catholic Health Association and private individuals provide financial support.
AVSI has treated the injured, and provided warm meals and winter clothing, shoes and blankets to families in temporary shelters and camps set up after the earthquake.
These organizations along with the U.S.-based Salesian Missions have set up disaster relief funds to aid quake survivors and are requesting financial support.
"Some families took refuge in our house in Aleppo. They arrived with only the clothes they had on. Their homes are not in good condition because of the war, and they feel safer with us," explained Father Alejandro León, superior of the Salesian Province of the Middle East, from Kafroun, near Homs and the Lebanese border.
The Salesians said in a statement that they are aiding the displaced as much as possible despite severe shortages of electricity and fuel affecting Syria. "The population is really having a difficult time," said Salesian Father Pier Jabloyan, provincial delegate for social communication.
Internally displaced Syrians who had escaped to the rebel-held areas of northwest Syria during the 12-year conflict have criticized the slow international response to bringing rescue equipment as well as medical and other relief aid to the region. Medical facilities are reported to be close to collapse there.
Now, more than 140 trucks loaded with supplies from six United Nations agencies have crossed into northwest Syria, mainly through the Bab al-Hawa border crossing with Turkey, but also through two other crossing points, which were previously closed.
Miracle rescues have taken place mainly in Turkey, where the enormous death toll has made it the worst disaster in modern Turkish history. Many people in both Syria and Turkey remain unaccounted for.
Meanwhile, several thousand Syrian refugees sheltering in Turkey have returned home to Syria’s conflict zone to check on relatives after the earthquakes. Turkish authorities are allowing them to spend up to six months in the rebel-held northwest without losing the opportunity to return to Turkey.
Aid groups say that survivors will need months of humanitarian aid, medical and psychological support to help rebuild their lives.