Fairfield’s Save the Children alters aid after earthquake in Turkey, Syria: ‘Mountains of debris’

FAIRFIELD — The level of devastation brought to Turkey and northern Syria by an earthquake last month, as well as its resulting aftershocks, is “extraordinary,” humanitarian aid workers said.

“Sometimes the images on television don’t always do that justice,” said Janti Soeripto, the president and CEO of Save the Children U.S., based in Fairfield. “I walked around in cities where literally not one single building seems to have been undamaged — mountains and mountains of debris.”

Early in the morning on Feb. 6, a 7.8 magnitude earthquake hit southern and central Turkey as well as northern and western Syria. Officials in those countries say the death toll from the natural disaster and its aftershocks is approaching 50,000.

Soeripto said she and her team visited the Turkish provinces of Hatay and Gaziantep last weekend to visit their staff in Turkey and talk with their partners in Syria. She said they went to a food distribution center and a child friendly space, where children can play and enjoy themselves, but also get access to mental health professionals. 

“We had the opportunity to visit a government run shelter, actually they called it a container city, where people who have lost their homes are finding temporary shelter,” she said. 

Soeripto said she visited Turkey in 2016 or 2017, adding it was quite impactful to see the devastation there. She said she saw people going into their  homes to try and salvage their belongings, even though the buildings were leaning at precarious angles. 

“The level of destruction is unlike anything I have seen over the last number of years,” she said. “You see a lot of people who are very hesitant to go back into their homes, even if they’re still standing, because they are concerned about their safety. We spoke to a health care professional who was saying that women are reluctant to go to hospitals to give birth because they are worried about the safety of the structure.”

Soeripto said it is a really desperate situation, and a lot of the aid workers responding to the disaster were also impacted by it. She said many staff members are still sleeping in tents or in Save the Children’s office, while trying to help their families as well.

Before the earthquake, Soeripto said, Save the Children’s aid workers were primarily focused on helping refugees from the Syrian Civil War both in Syria and Turkey. That mostly meant working to provide children and their families with education, health care and security. The non-profit’s mission has now shifted, she said.

“Within the first 20 hours, our teams based in Istanbul, they drove for 12 hours and managed to get up and going… serving hot soup,” she said. “It was great to have strong teams based in Turkey, as well as folks and other staff in northern Syria, because it allowed us to be on the ground super quick.”

Soeripto said the situation is still sort of in the immediate response phase, with Save the Children focusing on supplying people impacted by the earthquake with the essentials.

“We’re talking foods, blankets, clothing, hygiene kits — everything that people need — clean water,” she said. “We’ve also started to do some psychosocial support for children.”

Once schools start again, Soeripto said, Save the Children will help children get ready to go back. She said they are also working with the government to help children who lost their parents in the earthquake by connecting them with family.

“We’re putting all of our best efforts into it,” she said. “As we enter the next phase of the response, we’re going to work closely with the government to make sure we’re adding value where that is needed.”

People looking to help Save the Children’s efforts in Turkey and Syria can go to more information.

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