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Anne O' Rorke with children who TAIFI work with.
anne o'rorke

Irish woman in Turkey in race to get supplies to earthquake victims in rebel-held Syrian region

Anne O’Rorke runs a non-profit working with Syrian refugees, and is trying to get medical supplies to Idlib.

A WOMAN FROM Waterford who runs a non-profit organisation working with Syrian refugees in Turkey is in a “race against time” to get basic supplies to two medical centres in Idlib – a rebel-controlled region of north-west Syria that has been devastated by the recent earthquakes. 

Anne O’Rorke told The Journal they need to get the supplies across today: “We are trying to get the basics into these centres in Idlib. They need fuel for the ambulance, they need blood bags, body bags, syringes, and catheters. We have a tight window to get a delivery to them. Many of the roads are cut off, there is flooding in areas, it isn’t going to be easy. 

“We don’t have time to wait – this is very real, people are dying.”

She added: “The death toll in Syria is going to be much higher in reality than what is being reported so far, because it is hard to know how many are dead or gravely injured in rebel-controlled areas – many will still be under the rubble.” 

The death toll from the earthquake in southern Turkey and northern Syria has climbed past 9,400 – making it the deadliest seismic event in more than a decade. The toll is expected to keep rising. 

anne with the kids Anne and her team run classes and educational courses from the centre in Turkey. Pic: Anne O'Rorke.

O’Rorke initially moved to Izmir, Turkey, to head up a construction company. She set up the TIAFI community centre in 2017 after witnessing the struggles of refugees escaping war-torn Syria first-hand. 

Now the centre works with roughly 7,000 people. It is mainly mothers who have lost their husbands in Syria who TIAFI provides the most support to, but the community centre also helps elderly Turkish people who live in the town where it is based, which O’Rorke says is largely impoverished.

At the centre, refugees can avail of individual support at a drop-in support desk, a kitchen with free warm lunches, exercise programmes for kids with disabilities and creative, educational and skill-development activities for women and children.

Over the last two days, Anne said that many of the Syrian women and families that she works with have told her of finding out that a loved one has died in the earthquake. People have spoken about losing their mother, or their cousin, or an old friend.

Some of the refugees come in to the centre with pictures of the people they have lost, while others are waiting to hear news – they haven’t been able to contact their loved ones. 

“It has been very, very sad. Most of the team who volunteer here are Syrian refugees as well. They are all so desperate to help in anyway they can, but there is very little they can do when they have nothing. 

Still, Syrians have been dropping off blankets and clothes here so we can donate them to the Turkish government, because that is all they have to give.

WhatsApp Image 2023-02-07 at 16.19.58 (1) The team of 20 volunteers at the community centre in Izmir is mostly made up of Syrian refugees. Pic: Anne O'Rorke.

The Waterford woman explained that the refugee community in Izmir is devastated, and described a “numbness” in the centre. 

“These people are just like me and you, they were teachers, journalists, you name it. They never thought that the war that has ripped their country over the last 12 years was going to come, but it did, and it has left them with nothing. 

Of course they are crying, we have all been crying. But these women have faced war, Covid-19, poverty and now an earthquake. I don’t know how they keep going, but they do, and so what they want to know is ‘How can we help? What can we do?’

The team at TIAFI have worked tirelessly since the 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck the Turkey and Syria border region to get in touch with medical centres in Idlib who are desperately trying to conduct search and rescue operations, and treat the critically injured with very few supplies. 

“We have found a company with medical supplies in a warehouse in the border region that we have been able to buy – and some people have sent donations over the last 48 hours which we are very grateful for. And we are now working on plans to get those supplies delivered into Idlib,” O’Rorke said.

“We have a plan for the supplies to be delivered into the clinics by a volunteer who is a friend of TIAFI living in the region. The staff there couldn’t clearer – there isn’t any time to waste, this is life or death. They have people who need blood, and not enough blood bags to give it to them,” Anne said, noting that the delivery would have to be made today. 

Most of the Syrian north-west is ruled by militia, while other parts are in the hands of Turkish-backed factions. 

“There is a huge amount of volunteer rescuers being deployed in the worst-hit regions of Turkey at the moment. The Government knows how to handle disasters, and thankfully we are seeing international support coming in as well. 

“We are concerned about getting support to hard-to-reach communities in Syria. There is no one coming with cranes to help some of the people I have spoken to today, so as a small Syrian-focused organisation, we really see it as our duty to do what we can to help those falling between the cracks,” O’Rorke said. 

the food kitchen in the community centre The TIAFI centre is open daily. Meals are served up every day and food parcels are given out. Pic: TIAFI.

She added that for many of the families her centre supports, seeing relatives back home was part of the hope that keeps them going, and for some that has now been taken away. 

“It isn’t an easy life once they get here. We give out around 600 meals a day, many of these women don’t know how they will feed their children one day to the next. They aren’t living in apartments – the buildings are semi-derelict. Inflation is making the situation much worse. 

“A woman said to me the other day that she used to look at other countries that were at war and think about how sad it was, and how terrible it was for refugees, she didn’t think it was going to happen to her. And now this has happened as well,” Anne said. 

Several other NGOS and organisation are currently trying to get supplies into north-west Syria, and volunteer rescuers are trying to save as many people as possible, including the White Helmets.

You can check out TIAFI and its work here.

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