For the 3.5 million Syrians displaced in Turkey, the earth beneath their feet has been shaking for over a decade. Many of their homes, reduced to rubble two weeks ago, have been destroyed and rebuilt repeatedly. Since the beginning of the Syrian Civil War, which displaced 22 million, they have been forced to navigate unending uncertainty. As relief efforts continue, we cannot forget that for many people, multiple crises are coinciding. As humanitarians, recognizing that fact is as essential to communication as speaking a common language.
I was on the ground in Turkey for the first two weeks following the crisis, supporting the urgent humanitarian needs of those affected by this most recent disaster. My team is still there. We’ve traveled between communities, from Kahramanmaras to Iskenderun to Osmaniye. As an Arabic speaker, I expected to communicate with many of the Syrians who have settled in this part of Turkey, adjacent to the Syrian border. But throughout search and rescue efforts, assessments, and distributions, I’ve heard only Turkish. The tease of familiar, borrowed words from Arabic was beyond my grasp.
Until I dragged my team to Iskenderun between distributions to have lunch with my professor’s friend.
Fatima’s home immediately pulled us in – the beautiful herb garden, citrus trees, and a fire pit, currently used for warmth. As soon as I heard her father’s response to my oft-rejected communication attempts in Arabic, I felt at home. Her father and mother whisked us into the yard, made tea, and we began laughing and crying together.
They told me about the first earthquake, followed by a tsunami warning that sent them up to the hills. The second earthquake struck when they were already back home. Fatima, her parents, and her four brothers spent the night bundled up, her mother whispering fairy tales in their ears. They slept in chairs on the front porch, prepared to escape should another earthquake strike.
Fatima is sixteen years old, speaks Arabic, Turkish, and English fluently, and wants to be a doctor. She is the spitting image of her mother. She fled Syria when she was six, a year into the civil war. She never even began schooling before leaving, because when wars happen, the first thing to shut down is education.
Her mother, a psychologist, struggled to learn Turkish, so she works with her mostly Syrian clientele online. Her father is a dentist. Strangely, he looks exactly like my Uncle Michael, also a dentist.
Fatima told me that it’s hard to make friends at school, and that she’s faced discrimination. She has no friends with whom she speaks Arabic. She laughed that here I was, an Israeli, her first new friend in a long time with whom she could speak in her mother tongue. Language can be both a barrier and a bridge.
Four years ago, COVID-19 disrupted Fatima’s education for the second time, when schools in Turkey shut down. The government distributed tablets for online learning. Mostly Fatima slept a lot, her mother commented. Now Fatima is back in devastatingly familiar territory. After the earthquake, schools in the province are closed for three months at least.
Still today, displaced Syrians around the world are struggling to catch up, integrate, and fulfill their potential. Humanitarian disasters have come and gone since the beginning of the Syrian Civil War, from Ukraine to Yemen to Ethiopia; but we must not forget that these crises do not open and close with our attention spans.
Fatima and her family have built a beautiful home, raised smart, kind children, and rooted themselves in Turkey. Once again, their lives have been disrupted and their sense of security undermined. This is a compounded humanitarian disaster, wherein communities already affected by crisis are once again struck with overwhelming adversity. Compounded disasters are only becoming more prevalent amid climate change. It is critical that we commit ourselves to recognizing that the path to rebuilding is rarely straight forward. That is why we are here offering relief, and that is why we must double down on building resilient communities for the long term.
I do also hope that beyond distributing hand warmers, water filters, and kits with basic hygiene items, that singing Umm Kulthum and drinking tea tonight under the lemon trees brought Fatima and her family a piece of home. Despite my Egyptian accent.