A frontline account from Syria
A staff member from our partner organisation in Syria shares her account of the immediate aftermath of last year’s earthquake and tells us how people are faring in Aleppo today.
Jessi, a 26-year-old coordinator with our partner Dorcas, vividly recalls last year’s 7.8 magnitude earthquake as an event that changed everything for her and thousands of others. She shares her memories of the hours, days, weeks, and months following the disaster that left thousands homeless, injured, and hungry.
In the immediate aftermath of the earthquake, which hit at 4.20am on Monday 6 February, Jessi and her colleagues leapt into action. She recalls: “I tried to help people who needed to calm down or drink water. Then, I provided first aid to them. The earthquake was a disaster that cannot be described theoretically. Everyone lived in shock and fear, and to this day many people live with this feeling.”
Jessi has lived in Aleppo for 17 years and been part of the Dorcas team, providing humanitarian assistance to the people of Syria, since 2019. The earthquake compounded the many challenges faced by communities across Aleppo, in a landscape where people were already dealing with the daily reality of conflict, widespread poverty, and food insecurity. Mary’s Meals has been working in partnership with Dorcas to serve meals to children in Syria since 2017 and is currently reaching more than 4,000 children in places of education across Aleppo. Having worked with communities in crisis for a long time, Jessi has a keen sense of people’s most important concerns both before and after the tragedy.
She says: “Before the earthquake, people were at least living in their homes in safety … However, after the earthquake, people began to have a new concern; searching for a safe place. It was a strange feeling for an individual to experience, to lose confidence in your home, the place where you live.
“After overcoming the immediate shock, the most important thing for us [Dorcas] was providing food and drink for families, and then to try [to] restore their homes or search for other places to be homed. We cannot also forget the psychological factor that all children, men and women experienced, and the elderly. Even now, the psychological effects are clear to everyone.”
Our Crisis in Syria emergency appeal – made possible through the vital contribution of our donors, local partner, and volunteers – provided aid to those in desperate need, including food, water and other essential support. Thanks to the generous response from supporters all over the world, we were able to reach more than 7,000 people with daily food distributions and support Dorcas in providing other basic necessities to families, including hygiene packs, blankets, and psychosocial support.
Jessi was part of the team that was actively involved in delivering this vital aid. She says: “[To help develop a quick plan for intervention and assistance…] we began visiting shelter centres and individuals on the streets and conducting a questionnaire about the needs that they had at the present time.
“I remember when we were going to distribute food in the shelters, people were waiting for this meal because the number of individuals was large and no-one had any food, so it made a big difference in meeting the needs [during] the crisis. Children ran to our doors to receive a sandwich and a piece of fruit. There were elderly people who always thanked us, especially those who had a disability and were unable to move and meet their needs on their own. Honestly, the school feeding programme was my favourite part of the session because I cannot describe my feeling of joy when we were sitting in a circle with the children andsandwiches were being distributed to them and they were eating them with enjoyment, joy, and laughter.
“When the support began to arrive, [it] was distributed to the greatly affected families first, and then to all the families. In light of the difficult circumstances we lived in, I felt proud of myself and the work team for helping the world around us, and we were strong. Psychological support sessions were also held and relieved us ... We were working day and night to meet the needs created by the earthquake. This experience took us many months, and until now the attempt to help continues as much as possible.”
The impact on education was not confined to the days and weeks after the earthquake when schools were closed. Jessi says: “In the beginning, the students were absent from school for a long period due to the earthquake, and this led to academic loss among the students. Also, because many schools were damaged and completely closed, this also led to [other] schools facing pressure from a large number of students, and students … were made into groups, which were [taught in] two shifts. Many schools became shelter centres for people whose homes were damaged and were unable to return, and this affected the completion of the school year.”
As we reach the one-year anniversary of this devastating earthquake, the need for our programme remains clear. The hardships in this area not only persist but have been made worse, and many families are relying on our support to help meet their basic needs. Jessi concluded: “The economic situation that the residents of the Hanano area [of Aleppo] are experiencing is very difficult. Many of the homes only have some bread because they live on aid only and there is no income sufficient to meet their needs for food, So, all the children, they wait for this meal within the session, and sometimes we ask the child in the session why he did not eat the sandwich, and the answer is that he will share it with his sisters at home because they do not have food. Sometimes the children mention that they have not eaten cheese or labneh [common sandwich fillings] in their homes for a long time.
“There is definitely a need … because of the economic situation, many families cannot feed their children adequately, and there are also many diseases for children due to lack of nutrition, and this makes us face medical problems, lack of growth in children, and lack of immunity in children.”
For children in Syria who have endured years of conflict, unrest, poverty, and food insecurity, and whose challenges have been intensified by last year’s earthquake and its aftermath, school feeding is a lifeline. For children whose education has been interrupted yet again, offering school meals in their place of learning is helping to restore stability and offer hope for the future.
Our programme doesn’t just give children a vital daily meal and the chance to learn, it enables them to attend a safe place every school day and offers them a chance to be children alongside their peers. In a country where more than 2 million children remain out of school and more than a quarter of children under five years old suffer chronic malnutrition, our school feeding programme is more important than ever. Thank you for your support.