02/17/2023, 11.22
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Jesuit Provincial: from war to earthquake, Aleppo a 'traumatised' city

by p. Michael Zammit Mangion S.J.*

More than 10 days after the main quake three more people rescued from the rubble. Ascertained victims exceed 41,000. From 17 to 21 February, the Prefect of the Dicastery for the Eastern Churches will visit the earthquake-stricken areas to bring the Pope's support. The Jesuit provincial recounts the "daily" fear experienced  by the people.

Aleppo (AsiaNews) - A 17-year-old teenage girl was rescued from the rubble yesterday in Kahramanmaras, in southern Turkey, 11 days after the devastating earthquake that struck the country and neighbouring Syria, claiming over 41,000 lives so far. At the time of the rescue, the girl was conscious and was able to close and open her eyes following the instructions of the medical teams. Also in Turkey, 261 hours after the main quake, two more men aged 26 and 34 were extracted alive from the rubble of a private hospital in Hatay. Tonight, the prefect of the Dicastery for the Eastern Churches, Monsignor Claudio Gugerotti, is scheduled to arrive from on an official visit 17 to 21 February to the two countries to express Pope Francis's closeness to the population and to the operators of Caritas and other agencies in the front line of the relief effort. A fundamental work, to alleviate the suffering - as Fr Michael recounts after visiting the earthquake-stricken areas - to alleviate "the fear that people experience every day". 
Below we publish some excerpts from the Jesuit's testimony:

I arrived in Aleppo together with Fr Mourad Abou Seif, Fr Tony Homsy and Fr Nawras Sammour on Saturday 11th February. Fr Tony O’Riordan, an Irish Jesuit who is country director JR had preceded us by several days and was leading the JRS response.

I expected to see in Aleppo the same images as those I had seen of the earthquake in Turkey: whole neighborhoods flattened. It is not so in Aleppo. A certain number of houses did collapse – I have been told around 80 or so. They are houses that collapsed in the middle of other houses still standing. However, a large number have become dangerous, and people are forbidden to enter.

Over 100 teams of civil engineers have been organized to go and visit these houses. It is expected that more than 8.000 will be declared unsafe and will have to be pulled down. What struck me most is the fear people are in. People are traumatized. They are afraid to go back to their homes. Life in Aleppo has been extremely difficult these last twelve years, with the war, the huge destruction, the lack of electricity and fuel to warm houses in a very cold city. There are few jobs available. These last two years inflation has been such that people are not able to buy necessities. Many households do not eat met or chicken for several weeks. However, they manage to survive and hope for better days. This earthquake – or better these earthquakes- has robbed them of this meager hope. It is dreadful to see.

Following the first quake at around 5 am, people fled their houses and gathered in the freezing rain in public squares. I met some people who were bed ridden and could not leave their home on the 4th floor. The churches and the mosques opened up their halls to shelter the thousands of people who had left their homes. The Greek orthodox church of St Elias has had several hundred people sheltering in the church hall since last Monday. The halls are heated, and generators provide electricity. The church gives three meals a day to all the people staying there – whether Christians or Muslims. The mother of one of our Jesuits who spent 6 days there told me how comforting it was to be with others, in a place where warmth and light was provided. Many local associations are providing emergency help and they are receiving donations from Syria itself. . I visited Mgr Audo on Sunday after pontifical mass in his cathedral. There was only some slight damage to the cathedral which is easily repaired. 

The immediate early response seems to me to be adequate. We are, however, in a medium- term crisis needing to find accommodation for thousands of people – in a city which is already in a long-term crisis. JRS is preparing its response with this in mind. They have already resumed their services in the areas where they are present: Hullok, Sahour and Midan ( St Wartan) where they provide free primary health care and will be resuming shortly the activities with children in Sakhour. These activities will help the children recover from the impact of the earthquake. In coordination with the Syrian Red Crescent, they propose to increase the medical service to include more people. They plan to carry out needs and vulnerability assessments in the 8 emergency shelters present in the neighborhoods in which they work to better prepare the services they could provide.

I left Aleppo impressed by the courage of my brother Jesuits and by the work done by JRS in this extremely difficult situation. With their workforce of about 140 here in Aleppo, they have the necessary capabilities to carry out this work. In Homs, the Jesuits had already started helping the numerous people who had fled Aleppo and were seeking shelter there, many with friends and family. They organized the distribution of blankets and cooked food. The first day they were distributing 70 cooked meals. Yesterday the number had risen to 350. We do a lot of youth work at Homs, with over 1.000 children up to 18 in catechism school, 400 university students coming in for religious formation once a week and some 170 young people teaching catechism. 

We have therefore a large pool of generous young men and women who want to help with the earthquake relief. They wanted to leave for Aleppo. All are happy to be able to do something to help. It is wonderful to see how following this calamity whole communities have come together to help, some giving blankets, other clothes, yet others bringing food to share. People who have little or nothing giving from what they need to people who have less.

* Jesuit provincial of the Near East and Maghreb


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