Jesuit Refugee Service Syria was already accompanying the long-suffering people in war-ravaged northern Syria before the earthquake, providing basic services and spiritual closeness. As it faces the current dramatic emergency, the JRS team appeals for support and prayers.
By Linda Bordoni and Tomasz Matyka, SJ
More than 1,600 people have been reported dead so far in northern Syria following Monday’s earthquake. Search and rescue operations are ongoing in the area where people are still trapped under the rubble of destroyed or damaged buildings.
The region, which is ravaged by continuing conflict between the government, Kurdish-led forces and rebel groups is home to millions of refugees displaced by the civil war.
Even before the earthquake, the situation in much of the region was critical, with freezing weather, crumbling infrastructure and widespread poverty.
War-torn Aleppo is one of the cities most devastated by the deadly earthquake.
Speaking from Aleppo, the Director of Jesuit Refugee Service Syria, told Vatican Radio that sustaining life and health is the immediate priority, as the JRS team seeks to reopen essential health clinics.
Jesuit Fr. Tony O’Riordan, also spoke about the work JRS is doing to provide basic protection against the cold and aid for people who are unable to return home. “Helping people remain resilient mentally,” he added, is also crucial in the long-suffering region and in particular, at this moment in time.
Listen to Fr. Tony O’Riordan, SJ
Fr. O’Riordan recalled how the situation in Syria – and in Aleppo – had deteriorated over the course of 2022, plunging people into poverty, hunger, fuel poverty, and with a very degraded health system. All of this “causing great hardship over the winter.”
In eastern Aleppo, he added, “the area affected most by the war, the infrastructure and buildings were very devastated” even before the earthquake on Monday.
A resident of Aleppo evacuated from a building for safety
After the earthquake, right across the city, many more buildings have collapsed and others are unsafe, he said.
“What’s even more impactful, like a weapon of mass destruction, is the citywide loss of sense of safety.”
Fr. O’Riordan said he’s been listening to people “as they describe those dreadful moments of the first and second earthquakes: the first one coming in the hours of darkness and that sense of terror and their concern for their families in the darkness, not knowing what was happening, waking up, discovering what was happening and just not knowing what their situation was.”
Scores of people have perished he said, and “the thousands that have managed to survive are left very fearful.”
“They’re very afraid of further tremors, and they have an understandable trauma and sense of fear.”
The importance of spiritual closeness
So, the JRS director continued, one of the key ways that JRS seeks to respond “is giving people a listening ear, to allow God’s spirit to enter into the trauma and terror with compassion.”
He said he has already seen some of the fruits of this closeness but, he commented, “it will take even longer and more conversations for them to have a greater sense of security.”
“This is one of our great mission: the spiritual and emotional accompanying.”
People watch as rescue teams search for victims and survivors under the rubble in Aleppo
JRS is also on the frontline providing for practical needs: distributing food, supplying mattresses to a church hall that is receiving displaced people.
“There are about 126 emergency shelters throughout the city and these are struggling to cope with the sheer numbers and volumes of people. So JRS will do its part to support, as best we can, those needs,” he said.
Restoring the team
Fr. O’Riordan explained it is also important to accompany and restore the JRS team that has been working in Aleppo for the last 12 years, responding to the crisis.
“All our volunteers have been affected, both physically and emotionally, so we have spent some time assessing their need, and getting them to stand so that they can stand with others,” he said.
He expressed the hope that in the coming days, pre-existing healthcare centres will be re-opened, to offer “primary healthcare, particularly to women and children,” and also the JRS educational protection service for children.
Of course, he continued, JRS will continue to assess the needs as they emerge, supporting “people who are out of their homes in the coldest period of the winter here in Syria,” as well as helping them “recover their sense of security, and recover from the trauma, and continue to work with others to try and help people move back to their homes.”
Aftermath of the earthquake in Aleppo
Prayers and support
The JRS Syria director was at pains to express gratitude for “the prayers and the support of people from across Syria.”
“It’s amazing to see the outpouring of practical help and compassion from Syrians in other parts of the country and from Syrians overseas, as well as the outpouring of concern and pledges of support from people, from Churches and people of goodwill from across the world.”
Emphasizing his feelings of gratitude, he adapted a quote from St. Paul and said: “Where earthquakes abound, grace superabound!.”
“We’re beginning to see some of this superabundance of God’s grace, in the compassion and the generosity [of others].”
Reiterating that before the earthquake Syria was already in dire need of solidarity and closeness, he said now it needs it even more: “these people who have suffered trauma after trauma, tragedy after tragedy, now they need to receive grace upon grace.”
Finally, he expressed the hope that people will not forget the needs of the people suffering in Syria as the media spotlights move away from the current crisis.
“It’s really important that people make a long-term commitment to the people of Syria and help Syrians stand on their feet again.”
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Aleppo’s old town after the earthquake