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Harvard Law School hosted a hybrid panel Tuesday afternoon on the emergency response and aftermath of the Feb. 6 earthquake for refugees of northwestern Syria.
Co-hosted by the Middle Eastern and North African Law Students Association and Program on Law and Society in the Muslim World, the event was moderated by Bonnie L. Docherty ’94, a lecturer at the HLS Armed Conflict and Civilian Protection Initiative and director of the International Human Rights Clinic.
The talk featured four panelists: Syrian earthquake survivor Mohammed Assi, Syria Civil Defence member Ammar Al-Selmo, Syrian British Medical Society General Secretary Abdulkarim Ekzayez, and Alexandra Tarzikhan, founder of Meet a Refugee — a social media page dedicated to sharing refugees’ stories.
The panelists’ conversation focused on the recent 7.8 magnitude earthquake, which has killed more than 50,000 people and displaced millions of residents in the area. Due to stalls in international relief efforts, ongoing conflict, and infrastructure damage, thousands still lack life necessities like food, water, heat, and shelter.
During the talk, Assi recounted how Syrian refugees were forced to sleep outside in freezing temperatures due to the collapse of buildings and the fear of aftershocks.
“I would like to describe the day of the earthquake as if it was Judgment Day,” Assi said through an interpreter. “There’s entire cities that were reduced to rubble.”
“About 80 percent of the population of west Syria lives below the poverty line,” he said. “So you can only imagine this compounded with the effects of the earthquake.”
Tarzikhan said populations along the border of Syria and Turkey are “being displaced for a second, third, or fourth time” since the start of the ongoing civil war in Syria.
“Since the start of the civil war in 2011, about 3.6 million people had fled from Syria to Turkey, according to the UN Refugee Agency,” Tarzikhan said. “So about half of this 3.6 million figure were living in areas that were close to the earthquake epicenter, and now live in a region with destroyed buildings, destroyed hospitals and roads.”
Ekzayez highlighted the impact of the earthquake on the already fragile Syrian healthcare system in addition to damage from the civil war.
“Because this area has been the last stronghold for opposition forces, the area witnessed the majority of attacks by the Syrian regime and their allies, destroying most of the civilian infrastructure in the area,” Ekzayez said. “We’re talking about residential buildings or hospitals, health facilities, bakeries, schools.”
Tarzikhan said it was important to not only provide immediate aid but also long-term support for affected areas to rebuild and recover.
“You have the immediate needs,” she said. “And also the mental health needs – significant levels of trauma brought on by many years of war, on top of seeing family members and tens of thousands of lost lives, leaving this population more vulnerable than ever.”
During the question and answer session following the discussion, Tarzikhan encouraged audience members to “continue this momentum on the crisis.”
“As media attention fades, that’s really when people on the ground are going to need us the most,” Tarzikhan said. “Because funding is going to stop trickling in and donations are going to stop trickling in, and I think it’s important to really think of this more from a long-term perspective.”
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