Syria-Turkey earthquakes: “The healthcare system was struggling before the disaster”
When the powerful earthquakes hit Syria and Turkey (Türkiye) on 6 February, Syrian-born Sherwan knew two things: he needed to contact his family, and a humanitarian response would be complex.
From the first hours of the disaster, Médecins Sans Frontières / Doctors Without Borders (MSF) teams working in northwest Syria began treating patients and delivering supplies. This is a region where our staff were already providing life-saving and essential medical services to people who have lived through 12 years of civil war.
Compounded by a fragile economy, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and a recent cholera outbreak, the humanitarian situation was severe to start with. Crucially, the healthcare system was dependent on aid before the Syria-Türkiye earthquake even struck.
Originally from Syria, Sherwan Qasem has worked with MSF for more than 10 years in Türkiye, Syria, Somalia, and Lithuania. He is currently part of MSF’s emergency team based in Amsterdam.
Here, he shares his personal experience and his concerns about the unfolding crisis.
When I heard the news of the earthquakes on Monday morning, I immediately tried to contact my family and friends in Syria. I couldn't reach them as there was no electricity or internet. Sitting there, imagining what might have happened, was very stressful.
"For years it has been difficult to deliver support and supplies to this region and, unfortunately, it has not been any easier in the last few days"
I finally managed to get through to my mum on the phone. She said everybody felt it was the last minute of their lives. Luckily, all my family members were OK. But many people are struggling.
Our emergency response
In northwestern Syria, MSF-supported hospitals have seen thousands of injured people and hundreds who died. We are expecting the numbers to increase, as there will likely be fewer survivors found at this point.
I'm in touch with my colleagues in the western Aleppo countryside, where I used to work with MSF. They say the situation is extremely dire. This area has been at war for more than 11 years, so medical services were already struggling before the earthquake.
MSF has two main priorities right now.
First, to support hospitals and existing healthcare facilities with training and supplies to help them respond to this emergency.
We also provide them with fuel so they can have electricity and heating. Syria – like many countries around the world – is struggling with the energy crisis stemming from the war in Ukraine. They don't have enough fuel to run generators.
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The second is to bring in more supplies. One of the main problems is the lack of access to this area of Syria. The only access is through one humanitarian corridor.
For years it has been difficult to deliver support and supplies to this region and, unfortunately, it has not been any easier in the last few days. No aid could reach the area in the first 48 hours after the earthquake – the vital timeframe for survivors.
We call ourselves Doctors Without Borders, but unfortunately, there are many borders, and we are trying to overcome them and find different ways to deliver this aid to these people in need.
Displaced multiple times
There are around four million people living in this region, 2.8 million of whom have already been displaced – some more than once. I’ve met people who have been displaced 20 times.
Many of these people have been unable to leave the country because they lack resources, or they choose to remain to take care of their relatives who are sick, who need support, or who are unwilling to leave the country of their birth.
On top of this, there are more than 3.6 million Syrian refugees in Türkiye, the majority of whom were living in the four provinces most affected by the earthquake. When people fled Syria into Turkey to seek safety, most wanted to stay as close as possible to the Syrian border so that they could one day return home.
One of the biggest needs now is mental health.
Imagine if you are living in a camp, in a tent, in a makeshift house, after maybe many years of conflict without any kind of hope for what may happen tomorrow. The mental health burden is severe.
Yesterday, my mother said to me:
“My son, I don't know what may happen tomorrow. Every year for 12 years we have hoped that this would be the last year of our suffering.”
MSF and natural disasters
Within minutes, natural disasters such as earthquakes, tsunamis and hurricanes can overwhelm an entire population. Thousands of people can be injured or traumatised by the loss of family, friends and homes, while access to clean water, healthcare and transport can be cut off.
MSF has more than 50 years of experience delivering rapid and coordinated medical responses to protect survivors of natural disasters.