Ten days after devastating earthquakes impacted the region, Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) has told Premier that the situation “on the ground in Syria is catastrophic”.
Speaking from the region where he is coordinating the Roman Catholic agency’s response, Xavier Bisits said: “People are still obviously shocked …. People are in survival mode and the international response has been very weak.”
Aid to the Church in Need has announced an emergency relief package for Syria of more than £400,000.
At least 41,000 people are known to have died in the earthquakes in Turkey and Syria with hundreds of thousands of people injured and made homeless. The rescue mission is made even more challenging in Syria because of the ongoing civil war and a lack of humanitarian aid routes.
As ACN’s project coordinator for Lebanon and Syria, Xavier Bisits travelled to Aleppo within hours of the earthquakes on 6th February.
Reflecting widespread dismay in Syria about the lack of aid from abroad, Mr Bisits told Premier:
“There are almost no signs of an international response – the only international volunteers I have seen personally in Syria are from Lebanon.
“Many people are in despair.”
He described meeting a 12-year-old boy in Lattakia: “He told me he only had one wish – to take life back to how it was before the war.
“After 12 years of war, Covid sanctions and the collapse of the currency, this latest disaster is more than many people can bear.”
Government-controlled areas of Syria have received aid from the UN and from allies of President Assad, such as Russia and Iran. The UN has criticised the regime for being slow to open border crossings to allow aid conveys into the worst-affected northwest of Syria, which is under rebel control. Eleven UN lorries entered via a re-opened Turkish border crossing just yesterday.
Other help is getting through to Syria via churches, and ACN is taking emergency relief for destitute families to the port city of Lattakia and Aleppo, two of the areas worst affected by the disaster. This will be distributed to Christian and Muslim families through the local Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant churches.
Mr Bisits continued: “The priests and the sisters on the ground, they have good relationships with the families. They know the people who are most in need. So we've been helping get blankets and food and milk to them.”
“The worst damage seems to have been in Jableh [a town which neighbours Lattakia], where between 20 and 30 buildings were reduced to rubble, including cases of multiple buildings collapsing in a row.”
He added: “Christians are also seeking solace in their faith. In churches in both Aleppo and Latakia, you've had ecumenical prayer services, bringing together the Orthodox, Catholics and also the Protestant community. It's obviously a tragic situation, but it's a positive sign that the churches are coming together to give people a little bit of encouragement.”
Visiting Lattakia at the same time as Mr Bisits was Cardinal Mario Zenari, Apostolic Nuncio to Syria, who met victims and said that Pope Francis had funded Church-led relief in the region.
In a message to ACN, Cardinal Zenari stated: “After visiting Aleppo, Lattakia and Jableh, my impression can be summed up like this – I saw a sea of pain.”
As well as emergency help, ACN is working with Church leaders and engineers to assess and repair buildings damaged by the earthquake, enabling families to return.