A Jesuit Refugee Service group counselling session in Homs, Syria. Photo: JRS

Nour* had already lost four children during the decades-long violent conflict in Syria that began in 2011. Despite the tragedy, she had tried her best to keep it together for the sake of her remaining children. But when the deadly February 6, 2023 earthquake struck parts of Turkey and Syria, including Nour’s neighbourhood in Al-Sakhour, Aleppo, she felt her world crumble before her.

The night of the earthquake she remembered embracing her terrified children tightly. They survived. But the traumatic experience broke open the latent fears, pain, and guilt she had been carrying over the loss of her children during the war.

Feeling overwhelmed and unable to cope with life’s daily demands, Nour decided to participate in a psychosocial counselling session that had been set up by Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS), a Canadian Jesuits International (CJI) partner, in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake. Realizing that she needed more help, Nour requested individual counselling. Today, she has become more open to sharing her story in group sessions and has found comfort and healing by interacting with others. “When I share my painful experience with other women, I feel that I am not the only one who suffers, and this is what makes me belong more to them because they live with the same sadness that I live with,” she said.

Supported by CJI and other members of the Xavier Network, JRS Syria had set up a humanitarian emergency response that offered basic services , support for trauma and distress, healthcare services, and cash assistance to affected communities in Aleppo, Homs, Kafroun, and Damascus. Thanks to the generosity of Canadians, CJI is contributing over $350,000 to the ongoing response, which has since moved from the emergency phase to long-term responses that include education and protection, and community building programs.

Xavier Network’s immediate support for earthquake affected communities in Syria “strengthened emergency intervention with healthcare assistance to an already vulnerable population that had been experiencing protracted socio-economic crisis resulting in a severe deterioration of living conditions” and lack of healthcare, said a recent report by Fr Daniel Corrou SJ, JRS Middle East North Africa Region Director.

“Over the six months that followed the earthquake in Syria at least 8,476 people died and over 14,500 were injured. Among the dead were 2,153 children and 1,524 women,” said Corrou. The earthquake and its aftershocks also damaged essential service infrastructure and “exacerbated the situation of already vulnerable children and their families due to conflicts, leaving many people without food, water, and shelter and in urgent need of emergency medical and psychosocial assistance.” Even before the earthquake, about 27% of the affected population had no access to healthcare.

The impact of the earthquake was catastrophic. It “created a crisis within a crisis,” said Corrou, noting that prior to the disaster, 88 per cent of households told an International Labour Organization survey that they were unable to meet the cost of living. The figure shot up to 95 per cent after the earthquake.

Six months following the earthquake, the Xavier Network-supported intervention, which was implemented by JRS Syria staff and Country Director Fr Tony O’Riordan SJ, achieved what it set out to do, said Corrou. Here are some of the highlights he noted in his report:

  • 44,288 women, men and children received support through one or more programs;
  • 11,500 households received emergency food assistance in Aleppo, Homs, and Damascus. A follow up round of emergency food support was offered to 9,482 households in Aleppo;
  • 2,290 vulnerable households in Aleppo received winter clothing and hygiene kits;
  • 8,537 people received psychosocial support that created safe spaces and opportunities for adults to come together and share their stories and receive professional input from a team of social workers. A total of 1,865 children, women, and men received individual counselling. “Post service surveys conducted by JRS evidence a 100% satisfaction rating confirming the importance and impact of this intervention.”
  • The JRS Emergency Health Clinic provided 3,881 consultations with a general medicine physician to 1,905 patients;
  • 540 patients in need of surgery received financial support for referrals and hospitalization costs;
  • 177 JRS volunteers, who were also affected by the earthquake, received cash assistance;
  • Disaster risk reduction measures were completed in three buildings in Aleppo to reduce risks in future earthquakes;

The needs continue and are immense, said Corrou. In August 2023, the Syrian pound collapsed, hitting its lowest level on the parallel or black market. “This means that the scale of needs inside Syria is immense. More than 15 million people - seven out of ten - need humanitarian aid and protection,” said Corrou, citing figures from the UN Refugee Agency’s Brussels Conference statement.

“For the first time, every district in Syria is experiencing humanitarian stress, amidst a record increase in prices of more than 800% in the last two years alone, 90% of the population now lives below the poverty line,” he added.

“There is no room for complacency,” he concluded.

*Name has been changed to protect the person’s privacy