The need for donations to aid in relief and rebuilding after earthquakes in Syria and Turkey will remain urgent for several months, says Janice Biehn, communications and marketing coordinator for the Primate’s World Relief and Development Fund (PWRDF). If parishes and congregations are running donation drives and continue to do so through Lent, the agencies PWRDF supports will still be ready to put it to immediate use, she says.
Unlike the war in Ukraine, she said, the earthquake was one-time event. But that doesn’t mean its effects end quickly.
“That time frame can be protracted … I can’t think of any kind of disaster where after a week the needs are all sewn up and there’s nobody who’s still living without a house. There’s always needs later.”
So far Biehn says PWRDF has received $45,000 in donations earmarked for earthquake relief, much of which has come from individual donors as parishes and dioceses who are planning to contribute will likely take longer to pool their funds. Of that money, PWRDF has allocated $35,000 to ACT Alliance, an international ecumenical charity which is coordinating a response through its member churches in the region. PWRDF has sent another $5,000 to the diocese of Jerusalem, which is also responding.
The initial magnitude 7.8 earthquake struck along the border between northwest Syria and Turkey Feb. 6, toppling buildings throughout the region with a death toll estimated at nearly 47,000 as this article was being written in late February. It was the area’s first major earthquake in more than 200 years, with the previous one being a magnitude 7.4 tremor in 1822. Two more quakes hit the region on Feb. 20, killing at least 8 more people, complicating rescue efforts and damaging even more buildings. As this story was being written, injuries and deaths from the second round of tremors were still being tabulated. Estimates were lower than for the initial quake due to the later quakes’ much lower magnitude (6.4 and then 5.8), but they also severely diminished the chances of rescuing any remaining survivors trapped under rubble from the previous quake.
In a video from one of ACT Alliance’s partners, the Middle East Council of Churches, Rogina Makhoul, a Syrian survivor of the earthquake, described waking at 4 a.m. to the sounds of destruction.
“We ran to the bathroom … so here we lost hope of surviving. I held my children and told them to pray because that was our only hope,” she says in the video, which is translated from Arabic in subtitles. As subsequent waves of shaking hit, she describes running out into the street, barefoot in the rain to get out from under potentially collapsing buildings as others up and down her street did the same. “The situation was devastating, children were scared. My son, for example, still can’t sleep and keeps asking me if something will break or fall.”
Simon Chambers, director of communications for ACT Alliance, has been privy to the organization’s conference calls coordinating its response. He says the immediate priorities were food and medical aid plus water, waste-disposal, washing and related needs grouped under the acronym WASH (water, sanitation and hygiene). Those needs will remain, he says, but as the response continues, it will also need to include psychological support for people traumatized by the disaster, not to mention rebuilding both buildings and livelihoods.
That work is complicated by the war in Syria, which had already placed 4.1 million people in need of humanitarian aid, according to the United Nations. The Syrian government has made it difficult for aid organizations to get to areas of the country that are still held by the opposition, and international sanctions on Syria severely restrict the flow of money into the area.
Aid teams, Chambers says, were unable to reach 95 per cent of the affected region in the first few days after the quake, leaving potential survivors trapped under the rubble while rescue crews were able to work only on the other five per cent.
Because ACT Alliance works with local agencies, he says, it’s important to remember that those organizations’ staff and their families are also affected.
“I know of one partner who had one third of their staff impacted, living out of their cars or in the open air even as they worked on needs assessment and response plans for the needs of the communities they serve,” he says.
Readers who wish to donate to PWRDF’s earthquake relief can do so through the PWRDF website.