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Turkey's earthquakes: Refugees who fled war-torn Syria now face rebuilding their lives again

The Journal was on the ground in Turkey, meeting refugees and visiting the camps they are living in.

20240130-Diego_Cupolo_DSC_4219LRW(1) The group that gathered to speak to journalists in Reyhanlı. European Union, 2024 European Union, 2024

SITTING ACROSS FROM me is 24-year-old Marah Al-Hamoud.

We’re in a small, nondescript building on the outskirts of Reyhanli in southern Turkey. Look out the window, and a kilometre away you’ll see a fence that skirts along the country’s border with Syria.

It is a cold, grey day, and the rain is hopping off the roof above us.

Marah and other Syrian refugees have gathered to share their experiences with journalists from five countries from different countries in the European Union.

What we are told is almost unfathomable, but the type of loss she and others have experienced isn’t uncommon in this region.

On 6 February 2023, she was visiting family in Antakya – a city further south in the country’s Hatay province – when Turkey’s worst earthquake in more than half a century struck shortly after 4am. A second, powerful shock hit later in the day.

The building Marah was in collapsed and she was left trapped in the rubble. She remained there for five days before being rescued.

Marah’s husband and the entire family she was visiting died.

She had a miscarriage, and lost her unborn child.

Her injuries were so severe that both of her legs – one below the knee, one above – had to be amputated.

She had been piecing her life back together after fleeing Syria years previously. And now she faced a new, seemingly insurmountable challenge.

20240130-Diego_Cupolo_DSC_4330LRW Marah Al-Hamoud European Union, 2024 European Union, 2024

Turkey is host to the largest population of refugees in the world. Marah is one of them.

The country now faces a dual crisis of caring for people who have fled their home while managing the widespread displacement of local communities after the earthquake.

More than 50,000 people died in Turkey, and almost 700,000 remain homeless.

The Journal visited some of the worst-hit regions in recent days, to view the recovery efforts on the ground.

The building we’re in is the base of the National Syrian Project for Prosthetic Limbs (NSPPL). The centre opened in 2013 to help people injured in the civil war – then in its infancy – but expanded its operation after scores of people were left with life-changing injuries following the earthquake.

Treatment in local hospitals sometimes lacks a specialised approach to the fitting of prosthetics, or being able to provide an appropriate amount of follow-up physiotherapy. Access for patients is also sometimes an issue if the hospital where treatment is available is too far for those with limited means to travel.

The clinic’s remit also now includes mental health counselling, known as psychosocial support (PSS).

“Psychologically, after the earthquake, I was destroyed,” Marah tells us through a translator. She speaks confidently, but the depth of what she has experienced over the past decade is clear in her eyes, looking at us through her niqab.

20240130-Diego_Cupolo_DSC_4268LRW European Union, 2024 European Union, 2024

Now she has hope:

I feel different after receiving support here. I have a different perspective on life.

Beside her sits Sadihah Asaf (23), also a Syrian refugee, who lost nine members of her family, including her husband, in the quake. Her foot was amputated after she was trapped under debris for two days. With just primary-level education, she is struggling to get work.

Iftikar Khatun (57), a dual Turkish-Syrian citizen, also speaks to the group, sharing how she lost her left leg. Her son, previously the breadwinner of the family, can no longer work after being injured in Syria.

They all share the same view of Marah: the centre has helped them deal with not only the physical aspects of losing a limb, but also the psychological trauma they have experienced.

Relief International partnered with the clinic in 2017, with European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations (DG ECHO) providing EU-funding and facilitated a visit to the clinic for journalists.

20240130-Diego_Cupolo_DSC_4038LRW Inside the prosthetics clinic. European Union, 2024 European Union, 2024

NSPPL’s work is tight and focused: patients are assessed and the prostheses made on site by hand, before the device is fitted, adjusted, and maintained over several sessions while helping the person wearing it through physical therapy.

Its corridors are filled with people crafting prosthetics, carefully filing away plaster moulds, baking resin casts in ovens, and adjusting the devices with incredible precision.

It is intended that Turkish authorities will take over the running of the centre themselves.

Marah currently calls what is known as an informal camp home. These are collections of tents where living conditions are sometimes difficult, and local aid groups – including Irish charity Concern – work to improve facilities such as showers and toilets.

Some Syrian refugees are also housed in container camps, where conditions are better.

You will find displaced Turks and refugees in both types of camps, depending on their own personal circumstances.

Some might decline an offer of a place in a container camp as it removes them easy access to work, while others opt to remain on their own land.

20240130-Diego_Cupolo_DSC_4777LRW(1) A container camp in Hatay. European Union, 2024 European Union, 2024

Access to the container camps for journalists is tightly controlled by government.

We were permitted to visit one in Adiyaman province. Our group met refugees who were taking part in a hairdressing course organised by local group Gökkuşağı Association with support from a German NGO called GIZ.

We file in under the watchful eye of the camp’s officials and are permitted to speak with the group for a few minutes. Only the photographer with our group was given permission, after some reasoning with an official, to take images.

20240131-Diego_Cupolo_DSC_5179LRW The hairdressing class journalists were shown in a container camp. European Union, 2024 European Union, 2024

Few other residents of the clean, tidy camp were visible as we left, but dotted around us were officials with AFAD – the acronym for the Ministry of Interior Disaster and Emergency Management Authority – emblazoned on the back of their jackets.

They kept their distance and did not interact.

Back in Hatay, we saw the alternative reality. We visited Narlica informal camp, sloshing through mud and stepping around streams running down the paths to speak with 53-year-old Nehad Ismaeil.

He meets us in a small caravan used by humanitarian aid organisation Support to Life as a mobile mental health unit, a service he has used himself.

20240130-Diego_Cupolo_DSC_4632LRW(1) The informal camp at Narlica. European Union, 2024 European Union, 2024

He talks about help received when he first crossed over from Support to Life. Then, the Turkish government provided a card to pay for essentials but this was stopped when his son turned 18. They have to work, “otherwise life would be very difficult” Nehad says.

He works some agricultural jobs when he can find them, while his children go to a Turkish school.

Their home was destroyed in the earthquake. In the immediate aftermath, he was able to get tents, clothes, water, food and heaters from the government. Little has changed in the past year.

20240130-Diego_Cupolo_DSC_4644LRW Nehad Ismaeil. European Union, 2024 European Union, 2024

Still, there are also good relations with the local Turkish community, although some aid groups worry that this could break down in the current political and post-earthquake social climate.

His situation is difficult, but he sees his future in Turkey, with little appetite to head towards Europe without a legal, legitimate route. For now, he hopes to be able to get a place in a container camp to make the process of getting their life back on track easier.

But what does that look like? What comes next?

In Antakya, it’s hard to see the future recovery. There is rebuilding, people are being rehoused, but the city centre is littered with collapsed or crumbling buildings.

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There are swathes of muddy empty land where housing complexes once stood. Empty apartment blocks tower over the city, waiting to be torn down. Informal camps are scattered throughout the city.

The Turkish government is pumping money into rebuilding housing and the local economy, but there is international help too. EU funding via DG ECHO focused on the immediate disaster relief.

Is influence remains in the region, helping both individual aid groups as well as the reconstruction.

A network of EU officials keep a close eye on where the funding lands, working alongside local NGOs to make sure the needs of the population are met, while also keeping strict checks on how the money is being used.

We met people who benefited, and we could see the impact it was having on their lives, but it’s one part of a long, long process that will take generations to properly get on top of.

20240130-Diego_Cupolo_DSC_5002LRW Antakya. European Union, 2024 European Union, 2024

“It’s not a one day affair,” Nikolaus Meyer-Landrut, ambassador and Head of the EU Delegation to Turkey tells us during a remote interview.

But is the progress too slow?

I think the scale  of the disaster is such that it is very difficult for an outside observer to start to say that, ‘you should do this or that better’. Honestly, I think the government tries to do as good as it can. This reconstruction effort will bind huge amounts of the Turkish budget for years to come.

The Journal cites to the ambassador that the Turkish government in January approved the purchase of more than €21 billion worth of fighter jets – but the priorities of defence versus earthquake rehabilitation is not something Meyer-Landrut will be drawn on, even if the EU has skin in the game given the money provided to the region:

“This is not something I will comment on.

“The equivalent of 2.5% of the Turkish GDP is foreseen in the 2024 budget for earthquake rehabilitation. You also have an absorption issue [...] So, more money is not necessarily faster rehabilitation

Money alone will not rebuild such an area and we will need a lot of planning. A lot of work needs to go into this.