Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs
Center for Human Rights and Humanitarian Studies (CHRHS)

Earthquake teach-in sponsored by Center for Middle East Studies and Center for Human Rights

March 9, 2023

According to the latest official estimates, the humanitarian crisis in Turkey and Syria following the earthquakes that began on Feb. 6 has resulted in over 50,000 fatalities. On Feb. 27, The Center for Human Rights and Humanitarian Studies (CHR&HS) and the Center for Middle East Studies (CMES) sponsored a teach-in to address the disaster. CMES director Nadje Al-Ali and CHR&HS director Adam Levine hosted four researchers and activists from the region to educate the public on how people have been affected by the crisis and the ongoing challenges they face.

Tayseer Alkarim, a Syrian physician and humanitarian, explained how the ongoing complex, multi-sided civil war in Syria complicates humanitarian relief efforts. "Unlike Turkey, the affected areas in Syria were already extremely vulnerable and fragile, and the earthquake only made the situation much worse," he said. Alkarim blamed Syrian president Bashar al-Assad for his attacks on Syrian infrastructure outside of regions controlled by his government that have left "40% of the hospitals in Syria no longer functional."

Alkarim outlined many current needs in Syria, including "shelters, such as tents, prefabricated or semifixed houses, reconstruction of the destroyed buildings in the health sector to send supplies, medications, equipment, and surgical consumables." He also argued that the international community needs to "apply pressure to the U.N. and other international and intergovernmental organizations to change their approach" to Syria. He said the U.N. needs to take "stronger actions to stop the weaponization of humanitarian aid" and to put pressure on the Turkish government to protect the more than 3.5 million Syrian refugees in Turkey.

Jomah Alqasem, an access manager for Bahar Organization, a charity that provides humanitarian assistance in Syria and Iraq, agreed. "The area is exhausted by the ongoing war," he said, "...and the pressure on the existing infrastructure is making the situation even worse." He noted the current crisis in Syria was not just a result of the earthquake but also of "12 years of suffering, besiegement and deportation."

Alqasem said, "Over one million people in northwest Syria have been impacted by the earthquake, 323 schools have been destroyed, and 58 medical facilities have been impacted." He said with the "accumulation of ongoing crises, the earthquake was the last thing Syrians needed" and noted the situation was desperate. While tents are needed in the short term, he noted that "people cannot be living under a piece of cloth" in cold and hot weather. "We need to have more dignified shelter facilities because the people have already been suffering for a long time," he said.

Evin Jiyan, a Kurdish human rights and peace activist from Diyarbakir, Turkey, noted, "the number of people who lost their lives is much higher than the official figures." She said "thousands of those who lost their lives were buried anonymously because they couldn't be identified or their relatives couldn't be reached." She noted people were staying behind in villages that had been completely destroyed because they did not want to leave valuable livestock behind or because they were suspicious of the government's resettlement policies. 

Jiyan said, "political parties and non-governmental organizations and volunteers on the ground are reporting that there are still not enough toilets, showers or cleaning facilities." She also noted that public faith in relief efforts in Turkey was greatly shaken when it was recently revealed the Turkish Red Crescent had been selling tents, food and other donations to other charities before being distributed to victims of the disaster. 

The Turkish Red Crescent was already embroiled in a corruption scandal after it was revealed that the organization funneled an $8 million donation from a private company to the Ensar Foundation, an organization that is the subject of a child sexual abuse scandal and has close ties to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

Fulya Pinar, a post-doctoral research associate at CMES, argued that one of the most pressing needs in Syria and Turkey is "sustained, long-term help specifically designed for rebuilding the lives and living spaces of different groups of people." She cited single mothers, LGBTQ+ people, children orphaned by the earthquake, refugees and disabled people as groups particularly in need of help. 

Pinar said that in smaller towns and villages in Turkey, help often arrived seven to eight days after the initial earthquake. "In some places, when help did arrive, they did not have sufficient equipment, such as cranes, and many people froze to death under the rubble or died of hunger," she said. She noted that others had stayed behind in devastated villages to try to extricate family, friends and neighbors from the rubble on their own.

What is most needed now, Pinar said, is support for organizations already doing long-term work in the region. "There are so many wonderful grassroots organizations in Turkey who have already been doing long-term work, and they need support to keep doing it," she said.

Al-Ali summarized the desperate situation, "What we see in both Syria and Turkey is that the devastation due to the earthquake, that is a natural disaster, is much worse due to the human-made disaster." She continued, "Affected regions in Syria were already experiencing extreme hardships due to war, violence, dictatorship and sanctions. In Turkey, corruption, as well as political repression and the marginalization of ethnic and religious communities, has contributed to the difficulties in providing adequate humanitarian assistance. Widespread displacement and extremely harsh winter conditions are other factors that compound the challenges in the aftermath."

At the close of the teach-in, the hosts shared a link to a Turkey and Syria resource hub that gathers links to the latest news, reports, social-media, aid organizations and fundraisers intended to address the crisis.

 — Pete Bilderback