Syrian Americans haunted by earthquake devastation plea for world’s help

Monday | February 13, 2023

Every time Abdulrahman Al-Dahhan closes his eyes at night, he hears the screams of friends and family in Syria pleading for help.

He claims that it is impossible to sleep because of the voice messages he has received that detail their suffering. He lies awake haunted by their cries and plagued by remorse. He worries that while he is sleeping, thousands of people in Syria are still trapped under debris and dying.

Since a 7.8 magnitude earthquake devastated the area on February 6, more than 33,000 people have perished in Turkey and Syria. A lucky handful are still being extricated from the rubble nearly a week later, but the chances of discovering more survivors are dwindling in the frigid weather.

According to Al-Dahhan, 31, “It’s destroying me.” “At the time, I kept getting voice messages on WhatsApp from different numbers that were all from individuals crying and telling me they were witnessing people die all around them. They keep coming to mind.

In order to gather money for earthquake relief, Al-Dahhan, a Syrian-American assistance worker for Mercy-USA, a Michigan-based non-profit working in communities all over the world, has spent the previous week touring the country. He claims that through his efforts on social media and at schools, churches, and other gathering places, he has raised $100,000 so far.

In the meantime, his coworkers who made it out have been battling for time on the ground, utilizing the money generated by employees like Al-Dahhan to aid in the rescue of those still buried beneath the wreckage and provide aid to survivors who are still traumatized.

Al-Dahhan claims that since the earthquake, he hasn’t eaten well and has trouble sleeping for more than ten minutes at a time. His weariness is audible in his voice.

The more money I can raise locally, the more it will benefit elsewhere, so at least that gives me a little relief, he said. But I am constantly worried that I’m not doing enough and that I must continue. Sleeping makes me feel guilty. I have to be alert all the time. I need to be working. I want to get more updates. I feel like I’m operating here, but my mind and soul are there.”

He recounts in great detail the images he has seen from the ground and tells horror story after horror story to keep him awake at night. One of them is about a coworker who dug hard for his wife and daughters for two days in the freezing rain before crawling out of the wreckage with his 5-month-old child.

A different tale concerns a family whose two sisters perished in the earthquake, leaving their children orphaned. Al-Dahhan claims that when their brother found out about the murders of his sisters, he experienced a heart attack due to the shock and passed away, leaving his children without a father.

Al-voice Dahhan’s quivers as he describes each incident, but he resists the urge to cry.

There is no time to mourn.

Syrian Americans lead urgent relief efforts

Ameer Alsamman could hear screaming and yelling when he was on the phone with a buddy in Latakia, Syria. The call then ended.

According to Alsamman, 27, who spoke to CNN, “my mind went racing and I instantly believed it was an Israeli bombing, since we have had a couple of those in Latakia over the previous few years.” “I started to wish it had simply been an airstrike when I saw the news of a huge earthquake in the middle of the night.”

He claimed to have spent the next hours in misery as he watched pictures of death and destruction come into his phone without any means of knowing if his loved ones were buried beneath the debris.

“Never before have I felt so helpless as I did that evening. I was left with no choice except to watch and pray that my loved ones would survive, he added.

The only route for humanitarian aid between Turkey and Syria is Bab al-Hawa, and it took the first UN convoy three days after the earthquake to pass through it. Instead, rescue operations to aid Syrians trapped under the rubble were led by volunteers, including the group Syria Civil Defense, also referred to as the White Helmets.

The only groups capable of offering assistance were the ones already present, according to Al-Dahhan. “It felt like no one was there for them, no aid was getting through,” he added.

The situation became more frustrating as a result.

As time passed, there was less chance to save lives, prompting frantic efforts from Syrians living in the US like Alsamman and Al-Dahhan to raise as much money as they could for relief organizations on the ground.

It was not an option to do nothing.

Alsamman is utilizing social media to generate money while Al-Dahhan visits to collect donations physically. To yet, she has raised over $1,000 for respected international groups operating locally and 10 food boxes that were sent directly to those in need.

Nour Al Ghraowi, who moved to New York City from Damascus, Syria, after the country’s civil conflict erupted there in 2011, is also making a difference through her work as the Karam Foundation’s communications coordinator.

The group has donated more than $49,000 for earthquake assistance, according to Al Ghraowi, and “seeks to empower Syrian refugee youth and families nationally and worldwide through access to innovative education, community-driven help, and skill development.”

The funds were used to provide survivors in Syria and Turkey with hundreds of food baskets, blankets, water bottles, diapers, and hot meals.

Al Ghraowi stated, “Even though on a larger scale it appears that nobody has been talking about them and the world has been quiet, there are groups and people who are still fighting for them and who have never once ceased fighting for them.

Syrians are suffering from repeated trauma

The earthquake is simply the most recent in a decade-long string of calamities for Syrians.

The majority of the casualties occurred in the country’s northwest, primarily in Aleppo, Hama, Latakia, and Tartus, an area that has already struggled to rebuild crucial infrastructure that was severely damaged by aerial bombardment during the country’s civil war, which the UN estimates has claimed 300,000 lives since 2011.

According to UNICEF, 1.7 million people currently reside in tent cities and refugee camps in the region, making up half of the 4.6 million people who once called northwest Syria home. According to the agency, 3.3 million Syrians in the region experienced food insecurity last year.

Many terrified locals initially believed the sound of aircraft was waking them up when the earthquake struck there.

Leena Zahra, a Syrian-American humanitarian worker who works to improve global displaced people’s access to mental health care, describes the situation as “a crisis within a crisis.” Children, entire families, and some people who have moved more than 20 times will be affected by this catastrophe. It will just exacerbate the psychological effects they have already experienced.

Zahra stressed the urgent need for donations to meet immediate needs such as food, housing, non-food goods, and medicine, but added that it is also crucial to give Syrians with mental health care.

She claims that the sense of abandonment and forgetfulness that Syrians face both here and in the US is one of the main factors causing these mental health problems.

“Land, air, and sea have let down Syrians. In addition to the natural tragedy, they also had to battle and survive bombing, rockets, and demolitions, according to Zahra. “They are practically left on their own when you fail the institutions that are supposed to safeguard you again.”

It’s only natural for people to question whether they still matter or whether they will soon be forgotten, she continued. Will I only become another statistic or another demeaning image that is shared but not given a human face?

According to the Palestine Red Crescent Society, it was the first organization to deploy a team to Syria to assist earthquake victims with mental health needs. About 300 children and their families in shelters and hospitals are receiving mental health treatment from the Palestinian team and local volunteers as a result of the earthquake, who are dealing with extreme trauma and sadness.

Syrians who are witnessing the earthquake in the US from a distance feel powerless and helpless because of the 12 years of horrific conflict.

Photographs and videos of buildings collapsing during the earthquake, which are eerily similar to the aftermath of airstrikes that have killed and displaced thousands of people during the conflict, have been psychological triggers for some, including Al-Dahhan.

“I constructed walls years ago because the war that occurred seriously damaged me. Al-Dahhan stated, “I didn’t want to get harmed like that again. I can sense the walls collapsing with this earthquake, though. I am recalling details I don’t want to recall and have run out of ideas.

Others, such as Zahra and Alsamman, claim to be dealing with survivor’s guilt. They are plagued by a persistent, pervasive sense that no matter how much they do to help, it won’t be enough.

As Syrians, we don’t have much time to lament or grieve, Zahra asserted. “We’re trying to use energy, time, resources, all hours of the day, to keep Syria in the news, keep Syria in conversation,” she remarked.

We practically yell from the rooftops, “Please don’t get sidetracked, please share, please donate, please help.” We don’t have time to heal those wounds.

‘Don’t move on and forget about us’

Even after a week has gone since the earthquake, Al-phone Dahhan’s is still inundated with voicemails from people relaying traumatic tales from the ground.

As survivors grasp on to dwindling glimmer of hope in the streets, more news of deaths, children left orphaned, and entire families still trapped under the wreckage arrive every hour.

Al-Dahhan ends his account from Syria by saying, “I am living a zombie life here. I am working, yet my soul is not in this place.

According to Alsamman, mourning is challenging when you also feel pressure to fight for your people.

He continued, “To many in the international community, Syria is just another Arab country embroiled in conflict, destitution, and extremism.” “We’re sick of the meaningless international conferences and hollow declarations of solidarity that purport to address our situation. We must take action.

Local organizations want assistance in raising awareness, money, and essential supplies like food, clothing, and medication. Zahra contends that activists must exert pressure on the US and other nations to “activate catastrophe mechanisms and advocate for access to hard-to-reach areas” in order to fully address the issue.

We’ve been saying the same things for the past 12 years, Zahra complained. When will you start listening if not now?

When discussing the Middle East’s geopolitical complexity, the Syrian crisis, according to Alsamman, “has become an afterthought, a footnote to mention.”

He pleaded with them not to forget about them and move on. “Know that the people of Aleppo, Idlib, Latakia, and Hama don’t have the option of moving on,” the author writes. “In three weeks, when it isn’t as trendy to post and talk about Syria.”

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