An earthquake, an emergency, and endless trauma

Lina AbiRafeh
5 min readFeb 7, 2023

On Monday February 6, in the early hours of the morning local time, a 7.8 magnitude earthquake hit Türkiye and Syria followed by a magnitude 7.6 earthquake mere hours later.

It is estimated that more than 5,000 people have died as I write this — with numbers still on the rise. Exact figures of the injured are unknown, but they are in the tens of thousands. Others remain trapped. It is still impossible to count how many people, how many communities, are displaced.

In short, millions will be affected.

Turkish Prime Minister Erdoğan has declared a state of emergency in 10 cities. Emergency response teams have been deployed but rescue efforts and search missions have been hindered by multiple aftershocks, collapsing buildings, and freezing temperatures. Appeals for urgent help have been made — and the international community is mobilizing. The question is: are we doing enough, and doing it quickly enough?! In a situation like this, it is clearly never enough. The urgence is overwhelming.

I know, because I used to be one of those who mobilized for emergencies like this.

At the same time, I know that aid and assistance will not be equal. Geopolitical lines are drawn. Countries are still in conflict. And these conflicts have implications on aid allocation. In particular, the Ukraine/Russia war, sanctions imposed on Syria, and the Northern Syria de facto autonomous state will create complications.

One of these days, we need to have a (louder) global conversation about how to decolonize and depoliticize aid. Meaning, who does — and does not — get aid, who decides, and why. Blog for another day!

For now, as always, we lean on local organizations — on community groups and women-led groups and those who have always been, and always will be, on the frontlines. Even after our fleeting attentions have passed.

At the same time, these are the organizations we too often fail to fund fully, fail to support adequately, and sideline all-too-frequently. These organizations are already stretched beyond capacity. This time, how might we support and equip them to deal with a disaster on this scale? And to prepare for whatever may come next?

Zooming in on Syria for a sec. Why? It’s one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises. And that is pre-earthquake.

Conflict has been ongoing since 2011, with the outbreak of the civil war. The consequences are both long-term and devastating. This country has the largest number of internally displaced people in the world — 6.9 million. In American terms, that’s more than the entire state of Indiana.

An additional 5.6 million people are registered as refugees in neighboring countries. As of 2022, before the earthquake, 14.6 million people were in need of humanitarian assistance. That’s all of Arizona plus Massachusetts.

A lot of people. In need of a lot of help. Conditions were continuously deteriorating, meaning more and more people cannot meet their basic needs. More poverty, more lives at risk, and more conflict. And more people affected, especially those who are already vulnerable — women, children, and marginalized and minority groups.

And that was before the earthquake.

Arab nations have swiftly dispatched teams to help, as the aftershocks of the earthquakes have been felt throughout the region. Literally and figuratively.

Lebanon felt the shock of the earthquake, bringing back too-vivid memories of their own trauma. I was just there — the shock of that loss is very much alive in the country. The wounds of the 2020 Beirut Port Blast are physical and deeply psychological. And very fresh. A fleeting rainstorm and a loud clap of thunder one morning was a subject of conversation all day, with people looking up to the sky in terror, recalling that awful day.

It is telling that people across the region did not know a natural disaster had occurred. Rather, they thought of bombs and air strikes. This speaks volumes about the current state of the region. Layering the experience of this earthquake on top of years of crises makes the act of moving on, of healing, all but impossible.

I wrote a piece only two weeks ago where I said we cannot (re)build on a permanent fault-line. And here we are. Again.

This is a region that is already on its knees, debilitated by protracted conflict, political corruption, economic collapse, unprecedented levels of poverty, and more. The same people are suffering time and again. Fault-lines grow wider.

In a previous life, I’d be on a plane to Türkiye now. I’m a former — dare I say, retired?! — humanitarian aid worker with a too-long history of warzones and disasters. I was deployed to both Haiti and Nepal following their massive earthquakes, and I know too well what this does to individuals, communities, countries. And, to women. Yes, unsurprisingly, there’s also a gendered impact.

In the midst of all the chaos, law and order, support and services, and community networks are damaged and destroyed. And all the forms of violence that women and girls face everywhere increase — with new ones created. Because that’s how we “cope” with crisis. Precisely when we should stick together — we don’t. And every form of violence against women — particularly sexual violence — increases.

I’ve seen this in Haiti, Nepal, the Tsunami, Hurricane Katrina, Afghanistan, and now this one. And that’s just the natural disasters.

So, even when the “emergency” is over, we can’t look away. Because in those moments, the emergency for women is just beginning. And there’s nothing “natural” about that disaster.

There’s a lot about this work that feels helpless — but it’s not hopeless. I’m not on the frontlines anymore. But I’m writing — and someone will read this. And maybe, maybe, someone who wasn’t going to take any action will decide to do something.

What can we do?!

A useful earthquake victims help guide can be found here, and you can follow live updates of the situation here.

Here are a few good organizations on the ground taking donations and mobilizing help. I’ll keep sharing whatever information I get. This crisis needs resources, time, energy, support — from all of us.

Türkiye:

AFAD

AKUT

Ahbap

Syria:

Karam

Syria Relief and Development

Ghiras Alnahda

*with huge thanks to Rebecca O’Keeffe for sharp thinking and speedy contributions to get this blog up and out, because we must do something, and so we scream our words onto the screen.

A woman in Sri Lanka shows me what is left of her home after the Tsunami

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Lina AbiRafeh

Global women's rights expert, author, speaker, aid worker, feminist activist with 25 years of experience in 20 countries worldwide - and lots of stories!