An update from a Syrian teacher who lost her home and loved ones in the earthquakes
Updated March 3, 2023 at 9:00 AM ET
Editor's note: After initially interviewing Assalah Shikhani in early February, NPR followed up with her a few weeks later. Below is the updated digital version. To find out more about how she's doing, listen to our March 2 story here. NPR's original audio story about her is at the top of this page.
In the days after the first earthquakes in Syria and Turkey, we interviewed Assalah Shikhani in the Turkish city of Antakya.
The thirty-five-year old mother of two was searching for shelter with her daughters and parents. They were sleeping in a car and waiting for help among the rubble of collapsed buildings in the city where she lived. No help had come.
At the time, her friends and loved ones were buried under the rubble. She wasn't sure if they'd survived.
"Nobody digs them out, nobody. Antakya is a ghost city. Nothing there, no life at all," she said
Today she knows that her missing loved ones didn't survive. They are among the more than 50,000 lives taken by the earthquakes. Many more have been injured, tens of thousands are missing and hundreds of thousands are homeless, according to the U.N.
We checked back in with Shikhani this week to see how she and her daughters are doing. She spoke about losing her sense of stability and safety again — 12 years after she and her family fled the war in Syria to resettle in Turkey.
"I have a pain in my soul. I have pain physically. But I have the biggest pain that I don't belong to here," she said. "I look at the faces, the streets, all of these things. It doesn't belong to me. And I don't belong here."
Almost every day for the last three weeks, she returned to Antakya to help search and rescue workers recover the bodies of her uncle's family. She also gently walked through her damaged home to get things she needed before the building finally collapsed.
Her building was one of at least 173,000 that were reduced to rubble or severely damaged by the quakes in Turkey. Arrest warrants were issued to contractors and others connected to the collapsed buildings.
Shikhani is a teacher at a school for other Syrian refugees, funded and run by the Karam Foundation. In a new conversation with Morning Edition, Shikhani spoke to Leila Fadel from Bursa, Turkey. There she's staying with four other families in a friend's house. Soon she'll be in a new home that the Karam Foundation has found for her in Reyhanli, Turkey.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
On how her 14-year-old daughter is doing
"I'm trying to make her far from YouTube, from all the past. She lost her private teacher. She was with her the day before. Every day she came to stay with her because I'm working, you know? And I'm [in] Antakya, I'm going to Reyhanli every day. So this teacher was really close to her, more than me. So she lost her, and she needs time."
Her daughter is watching YouTube videos of the earthquake.
"And of our home, her teachers, schools, her friends."
On the people she lost
We lost them, but we didn't lose their faces, and their actions, and all of the things they shared with us.
Shikhani says that in Antakya, every family lost family members. Eight members of her uncle's family died under the rubble.
"I have my cousin, I have my friends, four. I have my neighbors. I lost Karam House students. Ten students from Antakya are Karam House students. They are my soul."
LF: I'm sorry.
"We lost them, but we didn't lose their faces, and their actions, and all of the things they shared with us."
On how she recovered things from her home before it collapsed
"The first thing I took out from my home [was] my brother's prosthesis. My brother is Shaheed [a martyr], and I keep his prosthesis because he was an amputee before his dying. I took my brother's prosthesis with me to keep it with me. Just to feel that I have something from Syria."
LF: "A piece of him?"
"Yeah, a piece of him."
On the start of the earthquakes
"I heard a big noise, and the quake begins. I put my daughters under the table. Everything fell down on us. So no electricity...it's so dark. I try to get my daughters out of the building. There is a small hole. We make all the kids go out, one by one."
"And it was heavy, heavy, heavy rain, and cold. So I take all my daughters, and my brother's wife, his kids, my dad and my mom to the park. And then went back with my brother to get my two aunts, they are old, out of the building. We put them on our back and take them out. When we're out I don't see the rest of the family. We don't know where they are. With no hijab, with no shoes, just with pajamas, I was running and shouting with the names of my daughters "Where are you? Where are you?""
"I found them, finally, Alhamdulillah [thank God]."
More than 300 thousand people are now homeless
"I have a five-year-old and a 14-year-old. We're going to another place because they kicked us out today. We flee, we went to the camp. They said there is a camp for Antakya people. We came yesterday. And he said okay, I will give you a tent. I stayed two hours in the cold with my daughters. Then he said I'm so sorry, there is no one for you... he let me with my daughters out. I stayed in the car yesterday. And today again."
We don't see any people. We don't know what happened. We don't know the news. We don't know where we have to go. There is no police, no rescue teams. Even for medical issues, we don't have centers. Nobody tells us what to do.
'There is no police, no rescue teams'
"In Antakya, nothing here. Nothing. We don't see any people. We don't know what happened. We don't know the news. We don't know where we have to go. There is no police, no rescue teams. Even for medical issues, we don't have centers. Nobody tells us what to do. We stayed for two days in this park."
The audio version of the interview with Assalah Shikhani was edited by Olivia Hampton. Majd Al-Waheidi edited it for digital. contributed to this story
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