While Western governments are still haggling with Damascus over access rights and protocols for humanitarian aid, ‘We Are One’ has been working in the disaster zone since Day 1
Apocalyptic. That is the only way to describe the scenes that evolved in the hours and days after the catastrophic earthquake that struck southern Turkey and northwestern Syria on February 6, 2023 with a force of 7.8 on the Richter scale. The death toll of 33,000 at the time of writing keeps climbing up daily and is expected to double once the rubble is cleared; tens of thousands were injured, and millions have been displaced. And the secondary disaster is not far behind: collapsed infrastructure and freezing cold weather impede efforts tremendously and pose serious risks to the now-homeless survivors. Help is desperately needed.
While Turkey has received swift support from the international community, the picture in the rebel-held Northwest of Syria is very different. Human, technical, and financial resources are all caught up in the political chess games that are being played out on government level.
But there is one private charity that within hours launched an unprecedented field operation: We Are One, an association jointly managed by Laurence Gaudin Ahya-Abdou in Bordeaux, France, and Hussein Kaddour Mashkal on the ground in Idlib, Syria. Together they created this charity in 2021 to help Syrian refugee children, and have been doing extraordinary work ever since, from bringing much-needed supplies to refugees’ tents to providing sick and handicapped children with medical equipment, and even founding a school for orphans. Laurence is the charity’s fundraising and finance manager in France, Hussein is the logistics and technical director in the field in Syria.
When disaster struck in the pre-dawn hours of February 6, Hussein was in Raju, near the Turkish border, to help people affected by the snow. “My team mate Ahmed and I shared one room,” he tells us. “When the earthquake occurred we felt that the building was going to fall on top of us. We just wanted to recite the Shahada [Islamic Oath and Creed] because we felt that death was approaching. Then we heard the sounds of ambulances.”
They dropped everything and headed toward Jenderes, the Syrian epicenter of the earthquake. “It was a great shock, more than 220 buildings had come down. It was a tough moment, especially when we were looking for victims,” he remembers. “The hardest thing I saw was when I found a one-year-old baby’s bed, then his father started looking for him because he said he was sleeping in the bed.” They kept digging until they found the little boy’s dead body. “These things just made another earthquake in my heart,” Hussein says sorrowfully.
He immediately began gathering his team of muscle-packed men to rush all the manpower and first aid provisions they could gather on short notice to the disaster zone. In direct collaboration with the White Helmets and under Hussein’s leadership, the We Are One team dug for survivors among the rubble, removed the bodies of those who had perished, and shepherded the newly-homeless to relative safety. “I am very proud of my team, and especially of Ahmed, who was also digging with all his might, hoping that we would find people alive. Thanks to his great efforts, we managed to quickly prepare shelters in Afrin and Idlib,” he says.
“We worked day and night hoping to find people alive. But what can simple tools like ours do with large residential buildings, cement and iron? I hoped every day that countries would not abandon us and would send us machinery and medicine. Unfortunately, everyone was against us,” Hussein recounts.
Survivors’ emotions began running high when they started to believe that the world had abandoned them, not realizing that the aid that Western countries and UN agencies had sent was ante portas but was caught up in cynical politics. Frustrated messages like this one started popping up:
While Western aid workers and machinery were blocked from reaching the disaster zone, We Are One were onsite around the clock, supported by very few of their peers who had been able to eventually join them. It would take until Friday, February 10, that the first foreign teams from Spain and Qatar – all from private charities – could finally arrive. Even Turkish rescuers from the Deniz Feneri Association joined the operations in brotherly Muslim spirit, being painfully aware how desperate the situation in the isolated Northwest of Syria was while Turkey was able to receive international help. Per an estimate of the UN’s refugee agency (UNHCR), over 5.3 million people have been left homeless in Syria alone.
The first earthquake-related aid convoy finally crossed from Turkey into northwestern Syria on Friday, February 10. The next day, the World Health Organization (WHO) flew 35 tons of medical equipment into Aleppo, with another 30 tonnes due to arrive in the coming days. But while waiting for these items to be distributed, people need hands-on help. And this really comes down to the helpers already on the ground, like Hussein’s We Are One team.
Financial aid from the West was also tied up in political armwrestling, but supplies on the ground were desperately needed to build makeshift shelters from tents, and provide food, water, coal, clothing, blankets, and hygiene packs to the survivors.
That is why back in France, Laurence launched an emergency appeal for donations through her partner association Smile Younited-Smile Montceau to buy essential equipment for the rescue operation locally in Syria.
Generous outpour from We Are Us followers allowed the association to shift the focus on survivors, leaving the search and rescue operations to the better equipped White Helmets. But while a donation dollar goes a long way in Syria – especially given that Hussein and his men are all unpaid volunteers – the financial needs are beyond imagination.
Hussein is physically and mentally exhausted to the limit but somehow harnesses superhuman strength to carry on. An activist, humanitarian and father of two young sons himself, he understands that beyond the critical practical help We Are One provides, people also need comfort, human warmth, and moral support right now, and children need a semblance of stability. That’s why he goes to the hospital to visit the tiny newborn that was pulled out of the debris, still attached to her diseased mother by her umbilical cord. That’s why he tries to cheer up traumatized children whose comprehension does not even begin to fathom the disaster they just survived and are still looking for missing family members, pets, or dolls. And that’s why he even thinks of cooking food for the helpers on the ground. “For me it matters to save any and all lives that I have in front of me.” And it’s the success stories – someone found alive after days under the rubble, a child that has been saved and laughs again for the first time, the gratitude of survivors for a warm blanket or a bag of food – that keeps him going day after day.
Having followed the excellent work of We Are One for quite some time, RIVIERA BUZZ supports the We Are One’s pledge drive to help injured victims, displaced families, and orphaned children.
Links to collections:
We Are One Earthquake Emergency (via Facebook)
French partner organization Smile Younited-Smile Montceau
The charitable association “Smile Montceau” has the following main objectives: to collect donations from individuals, associations or public or private institutions in order to provide support to victims of health crises and natural disasters, and to participate in or support health aid campaigns
Or email Laurence Gaudin Ahya-Abdou for bank details.
DUE TO THE CURRENT POLITICAL CONTEXT PLEASE MARK DONATIONS AS FOLLOWS
“Support for victims of the February 6 earthquake”.
(Note: Any mention of the word “Syria” will lead to the donation being blocked by the bank!)
Donations are tax-deductible.
In an area that was already ravaged by twelve years of civil war, the pandemic, harsh climate with extreme heat in summer and brutal cold in winter, every penny counts to help a population that has been subjected to unspeakable hardships. No amount is too humble, and the price of a cup of Starbucks coffee provides a meal for a local survivor family. Thank you on their behalf.
However, Hussein also warns of dubious requests popping up on the Internet to send donations to obscure private accounts: “I did not see anyone digging with us and searching for bodies and victims. I did not see anyone staying with us and the White Helmets all night and in the cold. And now I watch them asking for donations while they sit by their warm fireplace with their kids.” Whether you donate to We Are One or another charity of your choice, choose wisely.
Closer to home, the Rivieran communities also collect donations of dry food, baby food and supplies, warm blankets and bedding, clothing, and other practical items for transport to the affected regions. Find information in your daily regional news or on your community’s social media sites.
All images and videos courtesy of Hussein Mashkal,
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