When the Dust Won’t Settle: Stories of Syrian War and Earthquake Survivors

By Elle Kurancid, Walaa AlshaerSeptember 21, 2023

When the Dust Won’t Settle: Stories of Syrian War and Earthquake Survivors
STRETCHING DEEP BELOW California’s coastline, the San Andreas Fault resembles the East Anatolian Fault, which saw devastating ruptures in Türkiye and Syria last February. The San Andreas was behind the record 7.9-magnitude San Francisco quake of 1906, and experts say another megaquake lies in the West Coast’s future. In recent months, structural evaluation reports and seismic retrofitting for potentially vulnerable high-rise buildings have become mandated across Los Angeles County, with policymakers feeling cautious in the deadly wake of the weak earthquake safety codes of Türkiye’s newly reelected authoritarian leader.



Devastation in Antakya. Photo by Walaa Alshaer.

Caught between natural and man-made disasters, millions of Syrians who once sought refuge across the Turkish border must contend with repeated displacement and the mind-body toll of crises far beyond their control. February’s 7.8- and 7.5-magnitude earthquakes hit them hard, especially after 12 years of war.

The World Health Organization calls the quakes in southern Türkiye, home to the globe’s biggest registered refugee population, “the worst natural disaster in the WHO European Region for a century.” Meanwhile, the tremors also ravaged northern parts of Syria, where the largest displacement crisis of our time persists and nine in 10 people live in poverty.

Months on, the confirmed Türkiye–Syria quake death toll exceeds 55,000, with many tens of thousands more injured or missing, and millions displaced. To make matters even more devastating, both countries also sit atop the World Food Programme’s list of Middle East–North Africa populations facing a food insecurity crisis due to the “toxic combination” of high food inflation and collapsing currencies.

Here are the survival stories of Syrian refugee families caught between disasters, as told to Egyptian photographer Walaa Alshaer in Türkiye’s affected south last spring. [Asterisks indicate that names have been changed to protect the individuals’ safety.]



In a camp. Photo by Walaa Alshaer.

Nagah, a 55-year-old grandmother who fled Syria in 2012, lost her home and possessions in February’s quakes, in the hard-hit Turkish city of Osmaniye. “For 10 days, my family stayed in the cold streets, until we found [an informal camp] and built shelters of our own,” she says. “We pray that one day we’ll be able to return to our home in Syria, even though it was also destroyed,” she adds, this time referring to the war.


Omar in the rubble. Photo by Walaa Alshaer.

Omar,* a 25-year-old father of three who fled Syria in 2015, is pictured here as he searches for a box of cherished items in the ruins of his apartment building in Osmaniye.

“It’s been horrific for us,” he says, “but I believe we’ll see God’s relief during our lifetime, or after we die.”


Makeshift camp in Osmaniye. Photo by Walaa Alshaer.

Goma’a, a 12-year-old student who fled to Türkiye at age four, says, “All I remember from Syria is war.” Now, in Osmaniye, the apartment building he shares with his widowed mother and five siblings has been marked unsafe by the Turkish authorities. The family found shelter in two crowded earthquake displacement camps until his mother secured a short-term rental, so they could begin to rebuild again.

Yusef,* an 18-year-old student who fled Syria in 2015, safely evacuated his now-demolished apartment building with his family, in the city of Osmaniye, before joining the neighborhood search for people trapped beneath the debris. “I pulled two young boys from the rubble, then I collapsed,” he says. “It was my first time seeing dead children up close.”


Samira with Rayan in a photo on a cell phone. Photo by Walaa Alshaer.

Samira, a 15-year-old student whose family fled Syria a decade ago, stares deeply into a picture of her beloved 13-year-old sister Rayan, from inside a state-run earthquake displacement camp in Kirikhan, a devastated Turkish town.

“I was having a nightmare when the earthquake woke us up,” she says, “but I can only remember what happened next.” Alongside her parents and two sisters, Samira fled down their apartment building’s stairwell, but the ceiling caved in on Rayan, the last to leave.


Adnan and his youngest daughter, four-year-old Zainab. Photo by Walaa Alshaer.

Adnan, Samira and Rayan’s 41-year-old father, recalls that after three hours of searching through the rubble, he found his near-lifeless daughter and rushed her to a hospital. There, he was advised to leave her under medical observation for two days—but when he returned, she was nowhere to be found.


The cemetery outside of Antakya. Photo by Walaa Alshaer.

After a week of confusion, Adnan found Rayan in a new cemetery, just outside of Antakya, one of Türkiye’s worst-hit cities. There, thousands of missing or unidentified quake victims were also buried in graves marked with hand-painted numbers on wooden planks.


Elle Kurancid is an independent writer based in the Mediterranean region.

Walaa Alshaer is a freelance documentary photographer based in Dubai.

LARB Contributors

Elle Kurancid is a Canadian literary journalist, story editor, and docufiction scriptwriter who lives in the Mediterranean region. Since 2014, she has collaborated with over a dozen documentarians on sociopolitical stories based in Egypt, Yemen, Greece, Kenya, Ireland, India, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Rwanda, Vietnam, France, England, and Canada. Her website is www.ellekurancid.com.
Walaa Alshaer is a freelance documentary photographer based in the United Arab Emirates. Since 2013, she has worked on several long-term multimedia projects with NGOs in Africa and Asia, as well as on a series of self-directed photo essays, from Uganda and Vietnam’s orphanages to Bangladesh’s refugee camps to India’s perilous coalfields. What unites her work is a common interest in portraying the life stories and interior lives of the people she meets, capturing the emotional and psychological aspects of larger social, cultural, and environmental issues. Her website is www.walaaalshaer.com.


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