02/07/2023, 17.46
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Turkey-Syria earthquake, the tragedy of Syrian refugees and Church aid

by Dario Salvi

Faced with the emergency, Caritas responded quickly providing aid to everyone, Catholics and Orthodox, Christians and Muslims, Turks and migrants. “Everything is needed, from food to spiritual comfort and human support even among the refugees,” said the vicar of Anatolia. For the bishop of Aleppo, the tragedy could be an opportunity for Ankara and Damascus to “reflect about peace and working together”.

Milan (AsiaNews) – The emergency caused by the Turkey–Syria earthquake makes no difference for people, be they Christians or Muslims, Turks or Syrians, Afghan, Iraqi or Iranian refugees. For John Farhad Sadredin, director of Caritas Anatolia, “at present, no distinctions are made, we try to help everyone.”

For a few hours, the head of the Catholic charity was snowed in, stuck in central Turkey, trying to reach Iskenderun (Alexandretta) "where I will meet the vice governor" to coordinate aid "with local authorities,” he said speaking with AsiaNews.

We need everyone’s “full collaboration" and lots of aid because the needs are huge. “The priority is to provide hot meals, blankets, shelter. We have ordered powdered milk and diapers for small and sick children.”

The aid “is available to anyone”. In the parish, “we already shelter and give hot meals to 70 people – Catholics, Orthodox, Muslims – because with the tragedy divisions are put aside.”

The devastating earthquake could affect up to 23 million people, this according to the World Health Organisation.

The death toll now stands at around 5,000, about 3,900 in Turkey alone, but this is still far from the real extent of the tragedy. Meanwhile, the ground continues to shake as aftershocks continue.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan personally took charge of the Disaster and Emergency Management Presidency (AFAD),[*] dispatching the agriculture minister to Adana where he was met by protesters who complained about delays in rescue operations and corruption and malfeasance in connection of recently built buildings that collapsed.

News media have also started to report allegations that Turkish police arrested four people for criticising slow rescue efforts on social media.

Church aid

The devastating earthquake in Anatolia with its more than 240 aftershocks (one of them of magnitude 7.5) was felt in several countries in the region, including Lebanon and Israel, but it is in Syria that it has caused the most damage after Turkey.

Hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees live in the area affected by the quake, after they fled their homes during the civil war that has torn the Arab country since the spring of 2011.

At the time, out of Islamic solidarity many Turks and President Erdogan welcomed 3.6 million Syrians, more than any other country in the world; now, however, Turkish authorities want them to go home because they have become a burden to a country that is struggling economically.

"Yesterday Christian families were rescued in Iskenderun,” John Farhad Sadredin said, “but two Christians died in Antakya (Antioch), one of them a sacristan in Adana, who was visiting the city and was buried in the rubble.”

“Numbers aside, we must provide assistance, psychological included. The two countries, which were divided by years of conflict, now face the same tragedy.”

Bishop Paolo Bizzeti, vicar of Anatolia, agrees. “Let us hope that this earthquake can be an opportunity for renewed solidarity, going beyond past divisions and sufferings”. The prelate is currently coordinating aid from Italy while waiting to return to Turkey.

“A strong explosion was reported this morning in Iskenderun, perhaps a chemical factory, with  probably a toxic cloud covering the city,” he said. “Now we fear a series of terrible side effects, and the situation is getting worse. At the bishop’s residence, we took in anywhere between 50 and 70 people left homeless.”

For the prelate, the Church is trying to draw a "map of the situation”. To this end, a meeting of Caritas Turkey is scheduled today “to see how to organise the work, starting with essential fundraising. For this reason, I gave precise instructions in a press release(in Italian).

"Everything is needed, from food to spiritual comfort and human support even among the refugees themselves,” Bishop Bizzeti said. “Some families whom we have followed for years via various projects have had several deaths, children included; others are under the rubble. Refugees are the poorest of the poor. The situation is evolving and we are far from knowing the true extent of the tragedy.”

John Farhad Sadredin from Caritas knows this all too well. “We have always helped everyone: Syrians, Afghans, Iraqis, Iranians. In Gaziantep we had four projects for women, especially widows who are often alone at home without means. Yesterday we found out that five of them died under the rubble.

“In Cappadocia we had a soup kitchen for Afghan families, with bread, yogurt, jam and pickled vegetables made by women.” In Iskenderun,  "400 blankets should arrive. Many young people from different cities are coming to help in the emergency. But it is essential to coordinate interventions; for this reason, Caritas Internationalis will meet – delegations from Italy and the United States are expected to arrive tomorrow.”

For Giulia Longo, programme manager at Caritas Turkey, field experience, coordination (also with local authorities), and willingness to listen are needed in this phase of the emergency.

One goal is "to reach even those who have been forgotten, to be present among the refugees. The earthquake is not only a natural disaster, but touches migration as well. Many of our pre-earthquake projects in Gaziantep were dedicated to refugee women, microcredit, winter garment making. ... One of them died under the rubble.

“We also need counselling services because almost everyone knows someone who died in the earthquake, and places where, in light of the shared tragedy, Turks and immigrants can meet.” Recently, the two groups “hardly got along or accepted it each. We need to coordinate things (with the authorities) and find some balance, reaching out to others focusing on needs.”

The tragedy of Syrian refugees

Displaced persons and internal refugees can be found in great numbers in border provinces like Kahramanmaras and Gaziantep. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees has an office in the latter.

Syrians who fled the war began arriving in early 2011, and in 2016 Turkey built three “centres” setting up disused containers to house them. The one in Kahramanmaras can accommodate up to 25,000 people, but was supposed to be temporary until a final solution was found.

Gaziantep is home to about two million people, one quarter of them refugees. Soap makers have moved their production from Aleppo to the Turkish city..

International agencies, advocacy groups and Church organisations are well aware that the earthquake struck a region where millions of people were already suffering from a devastating humanitarian crisis.

Even before the quake, efforts aimed at distributing aid were complicated if not blocked by military priorities, first of all, Turkey’s “buffer” zone against alleged Kurdish threats.

To do this, President Erdogan repeatedly announced that a massive ground operation was in the offing across the border, in Syrian territory, fuelling tensions with his Syrian counterpart Bashar al-Assad. Only in recent weeks did rumours of possible talks between Ankara and Damascus helped ease the situation.

“After 12 years of wars, violence, and poverty, we now have perhaps reached the end point of all these misfortunes. Nature itself rebelled and attacked,” said Chaldean Bishop Antoine Audo of Aleppo.

“I have been presently impressed by many Muslims who are experiencing this event as a mystery, trying to accept God’s will in a spirit of obedience.

"In all the years I have experienced the tragedy of war, economic crisis, Covid, I have tried to work for peace, but with this earthquake, like many others, I have really seen death with my own eyes, a unique, tragic experience.

"Now is the time to act and try to help. A meeting is scheduled with all local Catholic bishops, to provide blankets and food, to allow people to regain the strength and confidence to return home and rebuild.”

Aleppo is again at the centre of international news. After being the epicentre of the war for years, with death and destruction, it was largely forgotten.

But war and earthquake have hit other places as well, including the whole of north-western Syria, where jihadi and rebel groups are still in control, where international NGOs are largely absent, and it is harder to determine the full impact of the quake.

The Syrian Civil Defence operates in rebel-held areas. Also known as the White Helmets, the group yesterday twitted that the area where they work is devastated, in need of international aid, with more than 700  dead and more than 2,000 injured, a number that is rising all the time. Rescuers are still digging through the rubble, pulling out bodies from collapsed buildings.

Case in point is a residential complex of 140 flats completely flattened in Besnaya, a village in the north-western part of the province of Idlib, near the Turkish  border.

Bishop Audo added: “In front of us we have a mosque, which has suffered heavy damage. We want to pay them an official visit, to present our condolences and provide some help. This earthquake will test everyone.”

For Syria and Turkey, this trying period “can become an opportunity to go beyond [the current crisis] and reflect about peace and working together, to think about the many victims among refugees, to find ways to break down walls and have an impact on society” and governments.


[*] Afet ve Acil Durum Yönetimi Başkanlığı.

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