“Resilience has its limits”: after devastating earthquakes, Syrian children need our help to piece their lives back together
Samer* is carried by aid worker Feras* to the child-friendly space because of his injured leg.Photo: Khalil Ashawi/Save the Children.
Syrians have lost everything again.
After the earthquakes that struck both Türkiye and Syria on February 6 and killed over 50,000 people, millions of people are trying to piece their lives back together once again.
Like so many Syrians, I also have lost family, friends and colleagues.
Let me tell you the story of Maya. On the night of the earthquake, Maya spent the night at Tala’s house in the city, her great friend and cousin. She often slept there because it was closer to the university, and with electricity and fuel shortages in the village, the commute was easier. They were both so excited for their first year of university, their whole futures ahead of them. When the ground shook that night, and as the family screamed for each other, it took only seconds for them to be buried under the weight of their whole lives, every possession they owned. Maya’s father rushed from the village, the neighbours came, but with only their hands they were helpless against the crumpled steel and concrete. After 10 hours under the rubble Maya’s lungs gave up, and she suffocated. When she was finally pulled out, her body was still warm. She had just died. The rescue was late, just a few minutes too late.
Maya died along with her best friend and cousin Tala, her uncle, and her aunt. Last Saturday would have been her 19th birthday.
Maya and Tala were my cousins.
They are two of millions of children who lived most of their childhood in the most difficult circumstances. They persevered despite facing dwindling resources, they went to school hungry, and they endured cold winters and dark nights. They worked hard to secure a better future – or at least, they tried.
But resilience has its limits.
Local rescue workers are clearing the rubble, local organisations are providing children and their families with shelter, blankets and mattresses, warm clothes and food. People are using pick-up trucks to move aid and essential supplies to families in need. However, they have also been affected. Some have lost their own homes or their loved ones. Most of them are grappling with the emotional toll that the earthquakes have taken.
We all saw the pictures of the devastation. And yet help simply did not arrive in Syria at the scale and speed that was needed.
They were completely on their own in those first hours. When much of the entire world turned its back on Syrians, they stood by each other and saved what was left.
Time and time again, when disaster and tragedy strike, they have not given up. They have not turned to hopelessness.
But it’s now time for the international community to do its part. We are in a race against time to avoid the secondary impacts of the earthquake. Services continue to be overstretched across the country, and children in northern Syria are at more risk of violence and exploitation.
Even before the earthquake, after 12 years of conflict, humanitarian needs across Syria were vast. These earthquakes mean that families are more likely to be forced to make impossible decisions for their children, including life-altering compromises on basic education, nutrition and health care, and their children’s protection. And may even take a perilous journey across the Mediterranean.
They should not be left to shoulder these challenges alone - they need our support.
Full humanitarian access to all those affected is now absolutely critical. We need access – from all sides, through all avenues. Lives and futures depend upon it.
But while meeting immediate needs, we need to think about the longer term. Now is the time to focus on recovery. We need to support local organisations and civil society to make meaningful changes in the support that people receive.
Schools will need to be rehabilitated and hospitals made fit for purpose. Children need safe homes to live in, not tents. Their parents need jobs that pay a decent wage and allow them to provide for their families. Without a change in approach, just to rebuild what’s lost, Syrians would need to wait another lifetime.
In my last visit to Syria, I saw devastation and suffering. But I also saw solidarity and hope. I saw people who opened their doors to their neighbours, cooked hot meals for them, split food that had already been rationed, they took care of younger children and older people.
In the last 12 years, Syria has endured conflict, economic crisis and now, natural disaster. What more needs to happen to make the international community act differently? The children of Syria are counting on us all.
Notes to editors
The Op-Ed above is an extract from Rasha Muhrez’s speech at the UN Security Council session on humanitarian needs in Syria on 28 February 2023.