‘I just want a mother’: Syria, Turkey struggle to care for orphans after earthquake

Mezyan Abdulhamed Mohamed, 12, was photographed near her home in the Syrian town of Jindires on Tuesday. Mohamed lost her immediate family in the 7.8-magnitude earthquake that hit the area and now lives with her grandparents and uncle. (Salwan Georges/Washington Post)


Jinderis, Syria — In the days after the earthquake, it was difficult to tell which of the children here still had parents. When local officials tried to match the survivors with their mothers and fathers, they found that they had never known part of the family.

After 12 years of civil war, this pocket of northwestern Syria is home to millions of people from across the country. Their names and histories are often obscured by migration and isolation. The family offered their hopes and prayers as rescue workers searched the hospital for the missing.

“We couldn’t check the database or the list,” said Nour Agha, who is working with relief workers in the shattered town of Jinderis. “Some of the kids were so shocked they couldn’t even tell us their names.”

More than a week after the disaster, with the death toll surpassing 41,000, extended families and authorities on both sides of the Turkish-Syrian border continue to report how many children have been orphaned and how they can be cared for. still trying to figure out. They are scattered across tents and hospital wards, sleeping in cars and in the apartments of their closest relatives who are left behind.

In Jinderis, where local officials say more than 1,200 have died, Rakkan Hassan Haji pointed to a deep crack in the wall of the family’s three-room house and gently placed his hand on his niece Mezhyan’s shoulder. . “I wish the house had been cracked,” he said.

She was the sole survivor of a family member whose third-floor apartment collapsed on its side in the earthquake as concrete rained down on the inhabitants.

Twelve-year-old Mezyan is tall for his age. She was the eldest daughter and had her twin brother, Rasheed. All gone. She stood near her uncle and she spoke softly. She had not returned to her home since her rescuers dragged her out of her ruins. She didn’t want her possessions back. “I just want a mother,” she said.

Local council officials roamed town, flipping through handwritten forms seeking the names of families facing similar situations. “It was a nightmare,” said one of them, scanning the row with her finger. .”

The children who emerged from the rubble were surprised and crying. One rescue worker recalled a girl trying to fight the rescue team. Her rescue team pulled her to safety and hysterically yelled for her to be returned to her family, still buried under her house.

90% of Syrians live below the poverty line, according to the United Nations. For a large family like hers in one of Syria’s poorest areas, Mezyan worries about how she will be able to afford her one child anymore. Haji and his wife already have two children and his salary as a day laborer barely covers the basics.

“She will be the apple of my eye now. She will be our daughter,” he said. “I don’t know what to do.”

Turkey is doing its best to track the number of new orphans, but the Turkish government said Friday it could not contact the families of 263 rescued children.Syrian authorities have made the struggle more complicated. Figures collected in government-held areas are aggregated in the rebel-held northwest, where non-governmental organizations register their own figures but have little means of matching them. It is not shared with the numeric value specified.

Desperately waiting for help in earthquake-hit Syria, but it never came

“Most of them are very young, so it’s hard to communicate with them,” said Leila Hasso of Fras Network, which provides psychosocial support to minors in northwestern Syria. She was most worried about children aged 11 to 14. These children had strong memories of the earthquake and the years of war that preceded it.

“There have been suicides in this age group even before the earthquake. Trauma is the hardest thing for children to remember,” Hasso said.

Jinderis, one of Syria’s worst-hit towns, is littered with earthquake debris. Gray debris blocks the space where the house once stood. Garbage covers the red dirt of an olive grove where families slept overnight in the freezing cold before local aid groups provided tents.

According to the International Organization for Migration, 17 trucks loaded with relief supplies entered northwestern Syria through the newly opened Bab al-Salaam border crossing on Tuesday. The cargo included shelter materials, mattresses, blankets and carpets.

Turkey has been flooded with aid and rescue teams from around the world. Government records are better. But caring for heartbroken children is hard work.

At a hospital in Gaziantep on Monday, Ayse Hilal Sahin, the facility’s chief nursing officer, said at least 60 minors had been treated since the earthquake, most of whom had lost at least one parent.

In one ward, a 9-year-old boy in a soccer jersey chats with his uncle, who is recovering from an injury. Under the rubble he survived for 156 hours before he was rescued from a collapsed house. His favorite player was Cristiano Ronaldo, said the boy. He wanted to be a pilot when he grew up. Uncle listened quietly.

He did not tell the boy that his parents had died. “The psychologist told him to tell early because they didn’t want him to get his hopes up,” he said. “We are waiting for him to recover physically. Then we will tell him.”

In the town of Afrin, which returned to Syria on Tuesday, an injured orphan was taken to a hospital. Some children were waiting for their relatives to pick them up. Some were awaiting treatment.

Eight-year-old Mohamed Mohamed had not yet been discharged. His aunt Yasmine, who was sitting by his bedside, said that both his parents had passed away.

“He’s with me now,” she said.

In another part of the hospital, a teenager was waiting to have his leg amputated. Wardan Nasser, chief physician of the Turkish-run hospital, said: They are the hardest thing you do. Talking to my family is the hardest thing. ”

For some children, there is no family to speak of. Doctors here are angry. They believed that many parents could have been saved. Northwestern Syria once again stood on its own as international aid efforts stalled in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake. Rescuers had no equipment. The hospital was running out of medicine.

Ahmed Haj Hassan, Afrin district health director, said bluntly, “I don’t want to receive only body bags after a disaster.” “I want you to contact me before you need a body bag, so I can save a life.”

In Jinderis, Mezhyan said he spent days trying to get in touch with his friends since the earthquake. “Some of them are alive,” she said. “I couldn’t reach them all.”

Mustafa Salim of Baghdad contributed to this report.

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