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“Salt to the Deep Wound” - The Humanitarian Response to the Turkey-Syria Earthquake: Challenges Ahead

February 21, 2023

Written by Devina Buckshee, journalist and MPH '23

As Turkey and Syria reel from the two massive earthquakes that killed 47,000 people and devastated countless lives, southern Turkey was struck by another magnitude 6.3 earthquake early on Monday, 20 February. While the immediate search and rescue teams are deployed, officials state that so far at least three people have been killed and hundreds more injured. 

On the evening of February 20th, in the wake of such an unfathomable tragedy, the Yale School of Public Health’s Dr. Kaveh Khoshnood was joined by Karam Alhamad, Syrian Democracy Activist & MPP Candidate at Yale’s Jackson School for Global Affairs and Charles Lister, Director of the Middle East Institute’s Syria and Countering Terrorism & Extremism programs to discuss the challenges that lie ahead. 

A sobering reminder of the personal tragedies behind the dizzying statistics came from the missing fourth panelist, Gönül Tol, Director of the Middle East Institute’s Turkish Studies Program who had to cancel as her family was impacted by the latest earthquake in Turkey.

The people of Syria have dealt with continued displacement, airstrikes and chemical warfare – but an earthquake of this scale is like adding a lot of salt to the deep wound.

Karam Alhamad

As international aid to Turkey flowed, aid to Syria has been, at least in the crucial initial hours and days, limited. “UN aid was only delivered on the fourth day of the earthquake, and even then the trucks coming in only had blankets,” said Alhamad. “There was an undue insertion of UN bureaucracy and politics into deciding how they could and would respond, and the Syrian regime played into this,” added Lister. Caught in the crosshairs of the politicization of aid were thousands of people who needed urgent care.

In this case, the UN has been directly complicit in the massive loss of life in Syria.

Charles Lister

“The UN, the U.S., the U.K. and the entire international community all ignored legal, ethical mandates and essentially left the rescue efforts to a volunteer force of about 3,000 White Helmets,” adds Lister. Both Alhamad and Lister remarked on how the White Helmets have been trained in humanitarian relief but not on the scale caused by the natural disaster, but still bore the brunt of the urgent care and rescue response.

Meanwhile, within two days of the earthquakes, countries from the Middle East including Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Kuwait, unilaterally flew in aid to people in need. “The scale of the disaster, given the protracted crisis, was immediately obvious and humanitarian actors knew we needed a rapid, significant international aid response. So it was frustrating that the response (from the UN) took so long,” said Lister.

To understand the depths of the disaster is to first understand the background of the region and of a people uprooted by years of displacement. As Lister said, the contextual vulnerability of the 12 years of crisis, coupled with one of the most devastating natural disasters in the region in hundreds of years leads one to ask: how can anyone have a stable life amidst crisis upon crisis?  

Alhamad brought the focus to the psychosocial impact of the earthquakes, urging the audience to “think about the survivors, many of who have already undergone trauma, who will require comprehensive support including mental health support, potentially for decades.”

The crisis has deep roots in the Yale community, and a student from the audience offered a Turkish perspective. “People in Turkey are also deeply saddened and angry at the situation, and we stand with Syria as well,” they said. “We are angry as there has been an asymmetry in which Turkish government aid was delivered. It is unclear why but as per domestic political debates, certain constituencies that favor the current government have been prioritized.”

In times of distress, communities come together and Youssef H. Ibrahim, President of the Yale MENA Association, explained how this event was convinced collaboratively with the leaders of seven different student organizations and representatives from Jackson School to “discuss how they can help in these tough circumstances.” The event, organized by Honey Thomas, MPP candidate at the Jackson School of Global Affairs, was planned “ within the boundaries of a larger initiative entitled "Yalies for Turkey and Syria" (YTS),” adds Ibrahim. 

“The most important is a streamlined joint fundraiser, an expansion of the pre-existing ISO and TSA initial fundraiser, that would include both the Turkish and Syrian sides of relief efforts. All the funds being collected via venmo (@YaleISO) go to trustworthy NGOs in Turkey and Syria,” said Ibrahim. For students who donate, the President of the Graduate and Professional Student Senate is matching every dollar with their own contribution up to $750. 

As the immediate and long-term needs continue to grow, please consider donating for humanitarian and earthquake relief to one of the organizations listed here or here.

Submitted by Eva Martin on February 22, 2023