“No more normal”: Girls describe life after Syria’s earthquakes

April 12, 2023
By Sirena Cordova
April 12, 2023
~6 min read

Two devastating earthquakes struck the border of Syria and Türkiye in February 2023, including more than one thousand aftershocks, killing and injuring more than 13,000 people in Syria alone. In the wake of this disaster, more than 4 million people in the northwest region of Syria need humanitarian assistance. 

Thousands of families have been forced into temporary shelters with little more than the clothes they were wearing on the morning the earthquakes struck. Girls and women are especially at risk in these overcrowded living situations, where they lack access to basic services and privacy.  

Plan International is working with our partners in Syria to provide relief to girls and their families. You can make a gift to our earthquake response and help us deliver food, water, blankets, mattresses and sleeping bags to survivors in urgent need. We’re also working alongside our partners to assess the long-term needs of children, especially children who have lost their parents in the disaster, and those separated from their families.  

In one of the shelters where Plan is providing support, we spoke with Juliana, 18, Carla, 16, and Jacqueline, 16, who shared how their lives have changed. 

Three young women from Syria wearing jackets and sweatshirts sit together on a mattress and smile.
Juliana (left), Carla (center) and Jacqueline (right) are staying in a temporary shelter together after their families’ homes were destroyed.

Before the earthquake, Carla says her life was very normal. The day the earthquakes struck was like any other. She came home from school, did her homework, ate dinner and went to bed. 

“We woke to my mother’s voice telling us to get up as there was an earthquake,” Carla says. “It took me a couple of seconds before realizing that it was true, I was shaking. I thought it would stop after a few seconds, but it didn’t stop. I started crying and shouting and telling my mother, we were going to die.”

“My mother wanted to get her jacket before leaving the building,” Carla continues. “I was telling my sister that we needed to go straight away, but she wanted to wait for my mother. I was crying and telling them that the building was going to fall, we were going to die and I was not waiting for anyone.” 

Carla left her building on her own, barefoot and wearing just her pajamas.  

“I ran into the street; it was dark and raining,” she remembers. “I was alone until more people started to come down.” 

When Carla reunited with her mother and sister, they went to a nearby square where there were fewer buildings at risk of collapsing. When it was deemed safe to return home, they found destroyed buildings and cars throughout the neighborhood. Even though their home was still intact, Carla and her family remained on edge. When the second earthquake hit later that morning, they were prepared to evacuate straight away with their winter clothing and shoes. 

A parking lot filled with cars and colorful chairs where families are staying after the earthquakes.
Many surviving families have had to sleep in cars, outside, or have found refuge in makeshift shelters in schools and churches.

“The first place we went to was the church, which was ready to support us with food and somewhere to sleep,” Carla says. “Our mental health is very down, everyone is crying. Children here especially cry a lot.” 

Children have been left deeply affected by the earthquake and are in need of mental health and psychosocial support. Some are experiencing panic attacks and frequent breakdowns since the earthquake. Parents have told us their children are suffering from extreme nightmares as they try to process what they’ve witnessed. 

[Read more: Not all scars are visible] 

Adolescent girls and young women living in the temporary shelters also experience particular protection concerns due to the lack of privacy and having few personal belongings. They face an increased risk of gender-based violence, including sexual exploitation, abuse and harassment.  

Part of Plan’s response is to install temporary dividing walls in shelters to increase privacy, as well as distribute hygiene kits with menstrual health supplies for girls and women, and information about services for gender-based violence survivors. 

Two women wearing coats collect large white boxes containing hygiene supplies from two men distributing kits to a community.
In addition to menstrual health supplies and gender-based violence information, hygiene kits also include items like soap, toothpaste, shampoo, sponges and trash bags.

Juliana tells us that before the earthquake, she felt her life was too routine, and that she often felt bored by it. However, the disaster has put everything into perspective for her.  

“After the earthquake, I was like, ‘No, my life was much better before,’” Juliana says. “I am ready to go back to my routine life and my [normal] problems and not go through what I am living in now.” 

Juliana says she spends most of her days in the church basement, occasionally busying herself by volunteering to help others.  

A mattress with a pile of pillows and a pink and white polka-dot bag placed in the corner of a tiled room with brown plastic chairs at the foot of and beside the makeshift bed.
Girls staying in makeshift shelters in schools and churches have limited space and privacy due to the sheer number of survivors seeking refuge.

“Sometimes the scouts come and do an activity with us,” she says. “I am also part of the church scouts as well. If they need any help — for example, if they need someone to give parents a break and play with the younger children — then I do that. We also help the elderly if they need anything.” 

For Juliana, the main priority is being able to return to her house and resume a normal life. 

“I want to go back to my home, to rest, sleep in peace, wear comfortable clothes and not spend all day wearing outdoor clothing,” Juliana says. “Feeling safe is the most important thing for me. I do not feel safe anymore, anywhere I go.”

During their conversation with Plan staff, Jacqueline agreed and said she tries to lift her mood in the shelter by spending time with her friends and studying.  

With many of the undamaged schools in Aleppo turned into temporary shelters, most children’s education has come to an abrupt halt. The education system in Syria was failing even before the earthquakes, with around half of school-age children ages 5-17 not attending school, and 1 in 3 schools not being used for educational purposes. 

“They opened some of the schools for ninth graders and above, but after the second big earthquake, they closed them again because our school sustained some damage,” Jacqueline says. “At the beginning they were providing classes in the auditoriums, so in case anything happened, we could escape faster. But now, they closed it.” 

As Plan continues to respond to this disaster, we’re organizing informal study sessions for students to keep up with their education while schools are closed. We’re also helping to restore damaged school buildings and replace furniture so that children can return to school safely.  

Carla, Juliana and Jacqueline all agree that they want to leave the shelter as soon as they can and resume their lives, but they do not know when that will be.  

“We have started to see that there is no more normal life,” Carla says. “The worst has happened, nothing worse than this can happen. We have been through wars, diseases and everything, but this is different.”

A pile of concrete from a collapsed building in between two damaged but intact buildings in the city of Aleppo.
Survivors are too afraid to return to their homes, even if they’re still intact, out of fear of more buildings collapsing.

“Buildings falling in front of you is hard,” Carla says. “And the hardest thing is that they rescued a girl in front of me from under the rubble. Maybe I didn’t experience the building falling down on me, but the image of the girl being rescued has stayed with me. If [the rescue team] had been there later, perhaps she wouldn’t be breathing.” 

Through our partners in Syria, Plan is providing support for earthquake survivors for the long term. While the future is uncertain for survivors of this disaster, your support will help make sure girls and their families stay safe and healthy, while also providing them with the resources they need to heal and rebuild their lives.