(RNS) — Eight years ago, Wael fled to Turkey amid the threat of bombings and airstrikes unleashed during the Syrian civil war. Now, nearly two months since a 7.8 magnitude earthquake decimated parts of Turkey and Syria, Wael said he and other Syrian refugees are coping with an event that’s arguably more traumatic than the war they escaped from in the first place.
“We’re all waiting for the next catastrophe or the next disaster. Maybe a volcano or some new disease,” Wael, who asked to go by his first name for security purposes, told Religion News Service in a call from Gaziantep, Turkey. “Most or all of us feel displaced twice, first because of the Syrian war, and second because of the earthquake.”
This Ramadan, Wael is also joining millions of other Muslims in Turkey fighting to rebuild while simultaneously observing the sacred month of fasting. As a relief worker with Ihsan Relief and Development, a regional organization serving Syrians and Syrian refugees, that means spending the day distributing aid without eating or drinking.
“As a humanitarian worker responding to the earthquake crisis, for this Ramadan, to be honest with you, I didn’t have any iftars at my own home until now,” he said. “It’s really different than last Ramadan.”
In the wake of the Feb. 6 earthquake, over 47,000 people have died in Turkey and Syria, with millions displaced throughout the region.
Dina Sharif, who arrived in Turkey on Saturday (March 25) with U.S.-based crisis response organization CORE (Community Organized Relief Effort), told RNS the damage she encountered in the province of Hatay is the most devastating thing she’s seen in her lifetime.
“You see before and after pictures of what once was standing in this major hub of social life that was Hatay city center, and it’s an absolute ghost town now,” said Sharif, the director of global communications for CORE. “You can’t tell what had previously existed if you’re just looking at the damage and the rubble.”
Gonul, who asked to be identified only by her first name for security purposes, was displaced from Samandağ, Turkey, a town in the province of Hatay, due to the earthquake. She is a consultant for CORE and told RNS that when the quake hit, “life for us literally stopped.”
“Half of it was completely destroyed,” she said, describing her hometown. “And you see some standing buildings, but it takes only a finger touch to get them to collapse. They’re heavily damaged.”
CORE, whose relief efforts target underserved communities, sent an initial search team to Turkey within a week of the earthquake to identify local partners and gaps in relief services. The organization now has operations scattered across the south of Turkey in the provinces of Gaziantep, Hatay and Mersin and is partnering with local groups such as Ihsan and MSYD, a humanitarian organization based in Turkey, to assess and meet the evolving needs of earthquake survivors.
While CORE and Ihsan initially distributed hot meals to those impacted by the earthquake, during Ramadan the teams have pivoted to handing out nonperishable foods in the rural areas of Gaziantep as well as hundreds of cash vouchers to earthquake-affected families in Mersin. The hope is that the vouchers and nonperishables will allow people to more easily plan their meals around their daily fast, by empowering them to choose what to eat and when.
Sharif added that the vouchers provide recipients with more agency to get what they need, whether that’s food, clothes or other items. Some, for example, may purchase treats for Eid-al-Fitr, a festival that marks the end of Ramadan, as a way to preserve normalcy.
The earthquake’s devastation has also changed how and where people gather for prayer and for shared meals during Ramadan. Gonul, who liaises on behalf of CORE with MSYD, said that in Samandağ, Ramadan was as much a social-cultural activity as a religious one. Non-Muslim neighbors often fasted with their Muslim friends out of solidarity.
“We used to have big dinner iftar tables with people we love,” said Gonul. “We prepared our best food, we invited each other, we had long discussions and chats and made the dinner extend for hours. And of course, this has now changed because many of us lost our houses. We live in small tents where it is impossible to maintain the same traditions we used to do earlier.”
Many of Turkey’s mosques have been damaged or destroyed by the earthquake, leading some Muslims to gather in tents for prayers instead. Sharif said CORE has been partnering with MSYD to distribute hygiene kits and food baskets to informal tent communities that have popped up in places that are out of reach of the government’s support. The makeshift shelters make it difficult to replicate the social gatherings of past Ramadans.
“It’s a very dark Ramadan this year, not only because people can’t gather the ways they are used to, but also because gathering together to break fast for iftar is a reminder to loved ones of all of the individuals who have been killed or fallen victim to this earthquake,” Sharif observed. “There are a lot of empty seats at the iftar table.”
In a country that was already facing economic hurdles and where refugees had come seeking peace and safety, the earthquake is compounding several preexisting crises. For Wael, it can seem impossible to find hope, especially at a time when global attention around Turkey and Syria is waning. But Gonul said solidarity from people around the world gives a reason to carry on.
“When you see people from all around the world sending messages and any type of aid they can, that sends hope that we will recover one day,” she said.
This story has been updated to clarify some of the sources’ relationships with aid organizations.