HomeMiddle EastSyrian women find strength after earthquake

Syrian women find strength after earthquake

one month after devastating earthquakes hit northern SyriaMoufida Ghanem is mourning the loss of a child and the destruction of her home, which collapsed on her and her two children, breaking her leg and killing her 18-year-old son.

Rescued from under the rubble with her 15-year-old son, Ali, the 40-year-old widow is now facing another loss. But she has been able to overcome all the challenges so far.

“For the last six years, I have been a stay-at-home mom and dad,” she told Al Jazeera from a tented camp in Azmarin, Idlib province. “Now I have to be a mother, father and brother to my son.”

When his recovery is complete, Moufida says, he will look for work to try to provide a “dignified life” for what remains of his family.

Moufida Ghanem and her son Ali now live in a tented camp in Azmarin (Ali Haj Suleiman/Al Jazeera)

As the world marks International Women’s Day on Wednesday, a series of remarkable portraits of women’s strength are emerging in northwestern Syria as it struggles to recover from massive earthquakes.

Single or widowed women like Moufida are forced to live in overcrowded camps where humanitarian organizations say they are at greater risk of harassment and abuse.

The International Rescue Committee (IRC) found that more than 60 percent of surveyed households had a householder defined as a person at risk, including households headed by women.

“Women and girls told us they don’t feel safe going to the toilet in crowded collective shelters,” Elias Abu Ata, IRC communications officer, told Al Jazeera. “Some reported harassment.”

View of haphazardly erected tents amid mountains of rubble
Many shelters in the area have been created by the people themselves, wherever they can find a bit of space (Ali Haj Suleiman/Al Jazeera)

Most of the available accommodation options also lack essential facilities such as bathrooms and toilets, which has a disproportionate effect on the safety of women and girls.

More than 8.8 million people have been affected by the earthquakes across Syria, according to United Nations figures, and more than 105,000 people have been displaced.

‘A sublime mission’

The devastation of the past month has made the roles women already play that much more important.

About a month before the earthquake, 44-year-old Iman Abdel Razzaq had left her job as a pediatric nurse to undergo vascular surgery on her foot. But when the mother of four saw the scale of the destruction and the needs that came with it, she set up a medical center to treat people for free, partnering with several of her colleagues who contributed all the medical equipment they possessed.

“The situation in Jandaris was apocalyptic, people were terrified, children were crying everywhere and we could hear the moans and moans coming from under the houses that had fallen on the families living there,” Iman told Al Jazeera.

A nurse checks a baby
The clinic helps at least 80 children a day, Iman told Al Jazeera (Ali Haj Suleiman/Al Jazeera)

“I was scared after the earthquake, but all I was thinking about was how I could help people,” she said, adding that her clinic receives at least 80 children daily, plus men and women who need care and some pregnant women who need emergency deliveries. . .

Iman and his colleagues managed to keep the project going from the day they launched it, right after the earthquakes. “Our work is voluntary and individual as we strive to bring free healthcare to people who need it. We depend on individual donations to buy more supplies for the clinic and we have not received support from any organization or authority,” he said.

When asked if work ever overwhelms her, she replied: “I get stronger by working because I consider medical and humanitarian work to be a sublime mission, to save lives and help people.”

‘My son asks me if the next scare will kill us’

Health professionals in northwestern Syria are very busy caring for others, and they also have to deal with the trauma their own children went through.

“When I get home, the first thing my seven-year-old son asks me is if we will die when another shock occurs,” Shahd al-Abdullah, a 29-year-old medical services volunteer with the Syria Civil Defensealso known as the White Helmets, he told Al Jazeera.

The IRC survey found that two in three children showed signs of psychological distress, such as increased crying, sadness and nightmares, and more than half of the households surveyed said their children had nightmares.

Shahd used to live in Saraqeb, east of Idlib, but moved to Qorqanya to live with her parents after being displaced by the war in 2019.

His mother had woken up when the quake hit and started yelling at everyone to get out of the house, Shahd recalls, so she took her son in her arms and went out into the street, surrounded by the bewildered faces of her neighbours. .

Shahid Al-Abdullah
Shahd al-Abdullah volunteered to work with the Syrian Civil Defense (Ali Haj Suleiman/Al Jazeera)

“I waited a bit for the aftershocks to calm down, I left my son with my parents and went to the Civil Protection center. As I walked, I was amazed at the level of destruction and the number of people on the street in the rain and freezing wind; none of them knew what to do,” he said.

Because the scale was so large, the Civil Defense volunteers were not limited to working in their original roles. “My specialization is emergency care, but I was working with search and rescue teams to find people trapped under rubble and giving them emergency care at medical centers,” Shahd explained.

“One of the things that happened that I won’t be able to forget is that one day we rescued a pregnant woman from under the rubble. She was still alive when we put her in the ambulance so she could go to the hospital.

“He grabbed my hand and said: ‘Don’t leave me, I’m afraid for the baby.’ I was trying to calm her down all the way to the hospital but unfortunately once we got there we found out that she had lost the baby. On top of that, she had extreme bone injuries that led to paralysis,” Shahd said sadly.

Shahd and his colleague head out with their medical bag to provide free medical care to earthquake survivors.
Shahd and his colleague go out with their medical bag to provide free medical care to earthquake survivors (Ali Haj Suleiman/Al Jazeera)

Civil Defense teams have been working non-stop since the earthquakes, and among the things Shahd and his colleagues do is go out into the camps to offer medical care to the survivors living there. “We are trying to reassure these people, some of whom are living in appalling conditions, that Civil Defense is here to help them and will not abandon them and that we will help them in any way we can,” Shahd continued.

“We have shown, as women, that we can work in the most difficult conditions and in all fields. Women now work in Civil Defense, and in the medical and humanitarian fields, they are making a difference everywhere, in most civil society organizations,” she said.

‘Indescribable feelings’

“When I saw the destruction that affected so many people in Jinderes and Afrin, I was deeply moved and really wanted to help in some way, no matter how small my contribution was,” 22-year-old artist Yasmine Khalil told Al Jazeera. .

For her, healing the psychological wounds left by the tragedy is the most important thing.

“I only have my brushes and my colors to help people, so I started working on paintings that showed the painful reality that we lived in Jandaris,” he said. The paintings show the destroyed buildings as smoke and dust rise.

Artist Yasmine Khalil sitting with her artwork in the rubble
The artist Yasmine Khalil with her works displayed among the rubble (Ali Haj Suleiman/Al Jazeera)

“In one of the paintings, a woman cries and screams as she emerges from the rubble with her dead son against her chest.”

Yasmine wanted to sell her paintings to raise money to help house or support at least one family in the affected area. So she held a live auction online and ended up raising almost 6,000 euros ($6,300).

“My dream had been to sell all my paintings to raise enough money to help a affected family. I could never have imagined that I would end up raising so much. This money raised could help set up tents to house about 50 families.

“My feelings are indescribable,” he said. “With my brush and my colors I managed to contribute to the relief of the afflicted”.

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