Caritas Syria staff survey the earthquake destruction in Lattakia and Tartous, Syria, Feb. 8, 2023 (OSV News photo/courtesy of Caritas Syria).

It was 4:15 on a Monday morning when the ground started moving, and “the [bell] tower was shaking, and some pieces fell.” Suddenly awake and in shock, Giacomo Pizzi, an NGO worker who arrived in Aleppo, Syria, the day before, fled from his room in the St. Francis Monastery, seeking the relative safety of the street. The busted tower was the first sign of the quick and brutal destruction that visited the ancient city.

Immediately after the February 6 earthquake, about five hundred people sought shelter in the St. Francis Monastery, where they endured a significant aftershock in the middle of the day. On February 20, another earthquake struck the region. News agencies report tens of thousands of deaths in Turkey and Syria, but numbers are hard to verify in war-torn Syria. This is a disaster on top of a disaster. Apart from damage to the bell tower and the cupola of its adjacent church, the monastery survived the earthquake, as did most other buildings in Aleppo’s downtown quarter of Azizieh. But there was more damage in the eastern part of the city, the target of regular aerial bombing campaigns during the civil war. “You cannot distinguish the rubble from the earthquake from the rubble that is left from the bombing of 2016,” Pizzi reported. The day after the first earthquakes, he ventured to east Aleppo to assess the damage in the three orphanages funded by his organization. All three buildings were mostly unscathed, but several of the orphans had died in their new homes. They were children born during—and sometimes because of—war, children who, in Pizzi’s words, “have never known peace.”

On the ground, churches—some equipped with generators—have become a refuge for many of those who suddenly find themselves without homes during an exceptionally cold winter.

Pizzi works for the Pro Terra Sancta Association (ATS), an NGO that promotes the cultural and natural preservation of the communities of the Holy Land. It is one of the many Western NGOs that provide the bulk of humanitarian aid in Syria. Apart from humanitarian projects, ATS helps develop small businesses and tourism. Before the earthquake, the organization had been working on reconstructing Aleppo through several development projects, including installing solar panels to generate electricity for a city whose infrastructure has been decimated by years of war. ATS is an arm of the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land, a network of monasteries spread across the Middle East; there is one in every major site mentioned in the New Testament.

Like many NGOs working in Syria, ATS had stockpiled food and other supplies for years. Since the earthquakes, more humanitarian aid has arrived from the developed world. Orthodox and Catholic churches have been working together to distribute food and blankets. Fr. Bahjat Karakach, a Franciscan in Aleppo, found a sign of hope in this cooperation. The earthquake, he said, “has united our efforts, erased all our differences, mobilized all our capabilities.… This earthquake may be necessary to put us back on the map of the world and thanks to it we may be able to rebuild modern Syria.”

In the northern coastal port of Latakia—what used to be called Laodicea—the Syrian regime’s large military presence has kept the city more intact than Aleppo. After the earthquake, refugees from the neighboring Idlib province, still controlled by anti-government rebels, flooded into Latakia, where there was already a refugee camp for Palestinians. ATS is present there as well, depending on what Pizzi calls “the machine of solidarity” around the world to provide supplies for those displaced by conflict and, now, natural disaster. To facilitate this work, the U.S. government has temporarily lifted its sanctions on Syria. Meanwhile, on the ground, churches—some equipped with generators—have become a refuge for many of those who suddenly find themselves without homes during an exceptionally cold winter.

Santiago Ramos is a staff writer for Commonweal and executive editor at Wisdom of Crowds.

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Published in the March 2023 issue: View Contents
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