‘I just want my mother’: Syria, Turkey struggle to care for orphans after quakes
The Washington Post February 15, 2023
JINDERIS, Syria — In the days after the earthquakes, it was hard to tell which of the children here still had parents. As local officials tried to match survivors with their mothers and fathers, they found they had never known some of the families at all.
After 12 years of civil war, this pocket of northwest Syria is home to millions of people from across the country, their names and histories often obscured by displacement and isolation. As aid workers scoured hospitals for the missing, families hoped and prayed.
“We couldn’t check on databases, we couldn’t check on lists,” said Nour Agha, a relief worker in the shattered town of Jinderis. “Some of the children couldn’t even tell us their names, they were so shocked.”
More than a week removed from the disaster, with the death toll above 41,000, extended families and authorities on both sides of the Turkey-Syria border are still trying to figure out how many children have been orphaned, and how to care for them. They are spread across tents and hospital wards, sleeping in cars or in the apartments of the closest relatives they have left.
In Jinderis, where local officials say more than 1,200 people were killed, Rakkan Hassan Haji motioned to the deep cracks in the wall of his family’s three-room home, then put a gentle hand on the shoulder of his niece, Mezyan. “We wish she had only had cracks in her home,” he said.
She was the only survivor from her immediate family, whose third-floor apartment crumbled sideways in the quake as concrete rained down on the residents. “It’s better not to see it,” the man said.
Twelve-year-old Mezyan is tall for her age. She was the eldest daughter and had a twin brother, Rasheed. All are gone now. She stood close to her uncle, speaking quietly. She had not been back to see her home since rescue workers pulled her from the ruins. She did not want to recover any possessions. “I just want my mother,” she said.
Local council officials milled about the town, leafing through handwritten forms for the names of families facing similar situations. “It’s been a nightmare,” said one of them, scanning the columns with his finger. “We just don’t know all these people. It’s good she had her relatives around her.”
Some children emerged from the rubble stunned or crying. One aid worker recalled how a girl tried to fight the rescue team who pulled her to safety, screaming hysterically at them that she wanted to be returned to her family, still buried under their house.
Ninety percent of Syrians live below the poverty line, according to the United Nations. For extended families like Mezyan’s, in one of the poorest parts of Syria, there are worries over how they will afford another child. Haji and his wife have two children already, and his salary as a day laborer barely covers the basics.
“She’ll be the apple of my eye now, she’ll be our daughter,” he said. His face darkened. “I don’t know how we’ll do it.”
While Turkey is doing its best to track the number of new orphans — the government there said Friday that the families of 263 rescued children could not be reached — Syrian authorities face a more complex struggle. Figures collected in government-held areas will not be shared with those tallied in the rebel-held northwest, where nongovernmental organizations register their own figures but have few means to collate them.
“Most of them are of a very young age, and so it’s hard to communicate with them,” said Layla Hasso of the Hurras Network, which provides psychosocial support to minors in Syria’s northwest. She was most worried about children ages 11 to 14 — those who had strong memories of the earthquakes, and of the years of war that came before.
“We saw suicides in this age group even before the earthquake. The trauma is hardest for those children who remember,” Hasso said.
In Jinderis, one of the worst-affected towns in Syria, the earthquake’s residue is everywhere. Ashen rubble clogs the spaces where houses once stood. Litter covers the red earth in the olive groves where families slept for nights in the freezing cold before a local aid group provided tents.
Seventeen trucks loaded with aid entered northwestern Syria on Tuesday through the newly opened Bab al-Salam border crossing, according to the International Organization for Migration. The cargo included shelter materials, mattresses, blankets and carpets.
In Turkey, aid and rescuers have poured in from around the world. Government records are better. But the task of caring for bereft children is just as daunting.
In a Gaziantep hospital on Monday, Ayse Hilal Sahin, the facility’s nursing head, said that they had treated at least 60 minors since the earthquake, and that most of them had lost at least one parent.
In one ward, a 9-year-old in a soccer jersey sat chatting away to his uncle as he recovered from his injuries. He survived for 156 hours beneath the rubble before being rescued from his collapsed home. His favorite player was Cristiano Ronaldo, the boy said. He wanted to be a pilot when he grew up. His uncle listened quietly.
He didn’t tell the boy that his parents were dead. “The psychologists told us to tell him early, because we don’t want him to have hopes,” he said. “We are waiting for him to recover physically, and then we’ll tell him.”
Back in Syria on Tuesday, in the town of Afrin, injured orphans had been brought to a hospital. Some of the children were waiting for relatives to pick them up. Others were waiting for treatment.
Eight-year-old Mohamed Mohamed had yet to be discharged because doctors were worried that he was still too stunned to speak. His aunt Yasmine, who sat at his bedside, said that both his parents had died.
“He’s with me now,” she said.
Elsewhere in the hospital, a teenager was waiting to have his leg amputated. “Most of the major surgeries are amputations,” said Wardan Nasser, the Turkish-run hospital’s lead doctor. “They’re the hardest things you do; they’re the hardest things you tell families.”
For some of the children, there are no families to tell. The doctors here are angry. Many parents could have been saved, they believed. As international aid efforts stalled in the immediate aftermath of the quakes, northwest Syria was again left on its own. Rescue workers lacked equipment. Hospitals ran low on medicine.
Ahmed Haj Hassan, the head of Afrin district’s health directorate, was blunt: “I don’t want just body bags coming to me after a disaster,” he said. “I want people to reach me before they need those body bags, so we can save their lives.”
In Jinderis, Mezyan said she had spent the days since the earthquakes trying to contact her friends. “Some of them are alive,” she said. “I haven’t been able to reach all of them.”
Mustafa Salim in Baghdad contributed to this report.