As It Happens

Inside the effort to help hundreds of kids orphaned by earthquakes in Turkey and Syria

Hundreds of children in Turkey and Syria who have been orphaned by the recent earthquake. Several aid agencies are trying to help them, but there are a lot of barriers — especially in war-torn Syria.

Aid groups say children need immediate shelter, psychological support, education, and permanent homes

A small girl with a pained expression lies in a bed. She has cuts on her face and an IV attached to her arm.
Jana al-Abdo, 7, who was pulled from under the rubble after a 50-hour rescue operation, receives treatment at a hospital run by the Syrian American Medical Society. She is one of untold numbers of children orphaned by the quakes. (Omar Albam/The Associated Press)

Layla Hasso keeps thinking about a nine-year-old girl that rescue workers pulled from the rubble in northeast Syria.

Hasso works for the Hurras Network, a Syrian child protection organization that has been working closely with first responders since the deadly earthquake earlier this month. 

In the immediate aftermath of the quake, she says a rescue worker saved a little girl's life. Once she was freed, she lashed out at the man who helped her, hitting him.

"She said, 'Why [did] you pull me out without my parents?'" Hasso told As It Happens host Nil Köksal. "This is very heartbreaking."

That girl is one of hundreds of children in Turkey and Syria who have been orphaned by the recent earthquakes.

The exact number is hard to pinpoint. But Turkey's government told the Washington Post last week that the families of 263 rescued children remain missing. The country's child welfare ministry did not respond to a request for an updated tally before deadline.

In Syria, which has been fighting a civil war for 12 years, the numbers are even harder to count. 

Along with other groups, the Hurras Network — which provides aid, shelter and psychological care to kids in Syria's Idlib province — has registered 65 cases of children who lost both parents in the quakes so far. But the real number, Hasso said, is likely higher. 

"Before the earthquake, every year we registered 100 cases," Hasso said. "So you can imagine after the earthquake, how many children."

Toxic stress

A 7.8-magnitude quake, followed by a 7.5-magnitude tremor, struck southeastern Turkey on Feb. 6, killing more than 46,000 people in the country and neighbouring Syria. Then on Monday, just as people were starting to catch their breath, two more quakes and several aftershocks hit.

"This was quite traumatic, especially for children who were just starting to find a sense of confidence and just kind of getting past the last few weeks," Save the Children's Alex Saieh said. 

About a dozen children, all girls, sit at rows of wooden desks.
This photo of displaced Syrian orphans attending school on outskirts of Idlib was taken in November 2021. Even before the recent earthquakes, the civil war in the country left many kids without parents or caregivers. (Chris McGrath/Getty Images)

Saieh, the non-governmental organization's head of humanitarian policy and advocacy, is working out of Gaziantep, Turkey, the epicentre of the first quake. She says kids there "are facing quite a lot of uncertainty."

"Children who are separated from the families are at an extremely high risk of emotional and psychological distress, abuse and exploitation," she said.

The charity has partnered with local governments in Turkey and humanitarian groups in northwest Syria to deliver aid in the form of temporary shelters, blankets, hygiene products, tents and mattresses.

"But what's really needed alongside this form of humanitarian assistance is psychosocial support," she said.

"Toxic stress is one of the most dangerous forms of stress, and it occurs when children are exposed to prolonged or repeated stressful conditions, which we have been seeing ... in Turkey over the last couple of weeks and in Syria over the last 12 years."

Adults in red vests kick a ball around outside with a group of children.
Save the Children staff provide a child-friendly space for children to play in Antakya, Turkey. (Save the Children)

She says her organization has established centres in the affected areas "where children can basically be children again."

"They have kind of a space to just kind of play around, take their minds off of the situation. And we provide psychosocial support alongside that so that they have a kind of space to express themselves and process what they've been through," she said. 

Connecting orphans with extended family

UNICEF, the United Nations agency responsible for providing humanitarian assistance to children worldwide, has also been delivering aid and operating centres for children to relax and play.

Many of those children have lost one or both parents, says Joe English, a UNICEF emergency communications specialist working out of Gaziantep and co-ordinating the agency's response in northwestern Syria.

UNICEF's first priority, he says, after providing immediate shelter and care, is to connect orphaned kids with other family members.

"Our position is that it is, in almost 100 per cent of the time, in the best interest of the child to be reunited with extended family if they have lost a parent," he said. "International adoptions should never be considered in the immediate aftermath of a humanitarian crisis."

Adults wearing blue or beige vests play with a group of children holding balloons.
UNICEF volunteers play with children at a makeshift shelter/school where they offer psychological first aid in Aleppo, Syria. (Firas Makdesi/Reuters)

The Hurras Network also prioritizes connecting kids to family members, Hasso said. But years of civil war have made this kind of work a logistical nightmare.

People have been forced to relocate again and again. Many folks lack identification. Sometimes the only family a child has left lives outside the country.

"It's really frustrating here," she said.

Baby born in the rubble finds a home

There have, however, been some hard-fought family reunions in the country. 

A baby born under the rubble in the rebel-held town of Jinderis, Syria, is now with her aunt and uncle, after her parents and siblings died in the disaster.

When first responders found the newborn, she was still attached via her umbilical cord to her mother, Afraa Abu Hadiya, who did not survive.

A person holds a tiny baby wrapped in white and pink blankets with a matching hat.
Khalil al-Sawadi holds Afraa, a baby girl who was born under the rubble in Jinderis, Aleppo province, Syria. Her parents and siblings all died in the earthquake earlier this month. (Ghaith Alsayed/The Associated Press)

On Saturday, her paternal aunt Hala and uncle by marriage Khalil Al-Sawadi finally picked up their niece. They named her Afraa, after her mom.

"This girl means so much to us because there's no one left of her family besides this baby," Sawadi told Reuters. 

Looking ahead

But not every child left orphaned by this crisis has somewhere to go, Hasso said. And it can be a struggle to find funding for their continued care.

After disasters like this, she says aid tends to go toward acute needs, rather than the long-term work of providing support to orphaned children.

"Usually [when people are] talking about aid, they [are] just talking about sending tents and food," she said. "But, actually, this is not what they need."

A woman in a blazer and a lanyard sits at a table in front of a microphone.
Layla Hasso is the manager of communication and advocacy for the Hurras Network, an organization that provides education and psychological support for children in Syria’s Idlib province. (Submitted by Layla Hasso)

Instead, she says there needs to be a plan for the long term — like getting kids back in school. 

English from UNICEF agrees.

"These kids, many of them, they've had the disruptions of two years of COVID. They've had disruptions of the war. They've been displaced. And ultimately, this generation of children are the ones who are going to be rebuilding this country," he said.

"So if we're not providing them with education, if we're not providing them with the tools, then we're not providing them with a chance."

Interview with Layla Hasso produced by Morgan Passi.

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