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The dust won’t settle: 2 months on from Turkey’s earthquakes, portraits of vulnerable Syrian survive


Photos by Walaa Alshaer and words by Elle Kurancid Intro: Caught between natural and man-made disasters — major earthquakes and ongoing war — Syrian families who sought refuge in southeastern Turkey years ago must now en- dure repeated displacement and fresh traumas. Here are some of their stories from Turkish cities devastated by February’s quakes, which the World Health Organization calls Europe’s worst natural disaster in a century. *Name changed to protect safety.

Omar,* a 25-year-old father of three, who fled Syria in 2015, searches for a box of cherished items buried in the ruins of his collapsed apartment building in Osmaniye city, Turkey. “Syrians are meant to be tested in their faith and practice,” he says, referring to the compounding disasters of earthquakes and war. “It’s been horrific for us, but I’m grateful, because it could’ve been even worse.” The 7.8 magnitude quake that struck southeastern Turkey also ripped through northwestern Syria, where the 12-year war’s worst displacement crisis continues. (March 18/Walaa Alshaer)

“I believe we’ll see God’s relief during our lifetime, or after we die,” says Omar, who spent weeks salvaging what he could from the debris. “All we can do is be patient.” The confirmed earthquake death toll in Turkey and Syria exceeds 50,000, with about six million people displaced, including some 850,000 children. For Omar and the over three million Syrians with tem- porary protection status in Turkey, the world’s largest refugee-hosting nation, more than half of their home country’s pre-war population have already been displaced by conflict and nine in 10 people live in poverty. (March 18/Walaa Alshaer)

Samira, a 15-year-old student whose family fled Syria’s war a decade ago, shares a picture of herself with her 13-year-old sister Rayan, from inside a state-run earthquake displacement camp in Kirikhan town, Turkey. “I was having a nightmare when the earthquake woke us up,” she says, “but I can only remember what happened next.” Alongside her parents and two sisters, Samira fled down their apartment building’s stairwell, but the ceiling caved in on Rayan, who was the last to leave. (March 22/ Walaa Alshaer)

Samira and Rayan’s father and youngest sister, 41-year-old Adnan and four-year-old Zainab, wait inside their tent in Kirikhan, a hard-hit town. After three hours of searching through the rubble, following February’s quake, Adnan found the near-lifeless Rayan and rushed her to a hospital. There, he was advised to leave her under medical observation for two days. But when he returned, his daughter was nowhere to be found. After a week of confusion, he tracked her down in a cemetery for missing earthquake victims. (March 22/Walaa Alshaer)

The cemetery where Rayan and thousands of missing or unidentified earthquake victims were laid to rest in graves marked with hand-painted numbers on wooden planks, just outside of Antakya, one of Turkey’s worst-hit cities. (March 22/ Walaa Alshaer)

A common scene of devastation in Antakya and across the region; meanwhile, the World Food Program says Syria and Turkey top the list of Middle East-North Africa nations overburdened by high food inflation and currency collapse. (March 22/ Walaa Alshaer)

At least 18 Turkish and Syrian families who lost their homes in February formed this makeshift camp in Osmaniye, an- other hard-hit city. (March 21/Walaa Alshaer)

Nagah, a 55-year-old grandmother, who escaped to Turkey from Syria in 2012, lost her home and possessions in Febru- ary’s quake in Osmaniye city. “For ten days, my family stayed in the cold streets, until we found this [informal camp] and built shelters of our own,” she says. “We pray that one day we’ll be able to return to our home in Syria, even though it was also de- stroyed.” (March 21/Walaa Alshaer)

Nadia,* a 33-year-old mother of five, who fled Syria for Turkey in 2017 after militants killed her husband, has been stay- ing in this Turkish state-run earthquake displacement camp in Osmaniye city. “Even in our tent, my children would scream and try to flee for the street,” she says, referring to the quake’s thousands of aftershocks and the mental health toll on their family. (March 20/Walaa Alshaer)

Nadia’s apartment building was marked unsafe by the authorities after the quake ripped through Osmaniye city. “When I was first allowed to visit my home, they only gave me five minutes,” she says during a quick trip to her soon-to-be demolished building. “Rats had eaten all our food, and the furniture, which I had been slowly paying for in installments, was destroyed.” (March 20/Walaa Alshaer)

Yusef,* 18, whose family fled Syria’s war in 2015, shares pictures of himself with his Syrian and Turkish friends, in the city of Osmaniye. After fleeing their now-demolished apartment building, he handed this cherished stack of photos to his mother for safekeeping and joined the neighborhood search for people trapped beneath the debris. “I pulled two young boys from the rubble, then I collapsed,” he says. “It was my first time seeing dead children up close.” (March 19/Walaa Alshaer)

“All I remember from Syria is war,” says Goma’a, 12, who fled to Turkey with his family at age four. Now, in Osmaniye, the apartment building he was living in with his widowed mother and five siblings, including 10-year-old Rama and four-year- old Fatma, was marked unsafe by the authorities. Before his mother managed to secure this small, short-term rental, they took shelter in two crowded earthquake displacement camps. (March 24/Walaa Alshaer)

Menas and Amany, a 31-year-old father and 26-year-old mother of three, break their Ramadan fast with an iftar meal inside their temporary shelter in Osmaniye city. “My last good memory is of our family gatherings in Syria,” says Amany, “before my father and two brothers were killed.” About seven years ago, the young mother, who used to hide underground from military planes, fled to Turkey with their one-year-old son Aladdin in her arms. (March 24/Walaa Alshaer)

“The sound of buildings collapsing in our area, with people running and screaming, terrified my children,” says Menas, referring to February’s quakes, from inside his family’s temporary shelter on the road in front of their damaged apartment build- ing. “Since my kids saw dead bodies in the streets, they’ve refused to enter the building. I don’t know how we’ll ever go back to feeling safe again.” (March 24/Walaa Alshaer)

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