This week, The National reported from Adana, in southern Turkey, on a support group that uses dance, music and games to help young children express trauma and anxiety.
Hands of Angels — a team of about 100 Turkish child development specialists and teachers — started working with more than 120 children affected by the February 6 earthquake on the Turkey-Syria border. It is harrowing to know that some of the children being gently led through songs and exercises — some smiling despite their predicament — had been pulled from rubble after hours or days. Many lost parents and other family members. All face an uncertain future.
An estimated 4.6 million children were living in the 10 Turkish provinces hit by the earthquake. According to Unicef, more than 2.5 million children in neighbouring Syria have also been affected. Already denied a normal childhood by the disaster, many may have been retraumatised by the 6.4-magnitude quake that struck Hatay province on Monday night.
Watching the volunteers work with these vulnerable children, playing and dancing amid a sea of tents, drives home the wisdom of Hands of Angels’ approach — to couple immediate earthquake relief with community-based health care to manage the medium and long-term effects of the catastrophe.
This was a point made by Dr Mike Ryan, executive director of the World Health Organisation’s Health Emergencies Programme, last week. Speaking at the World Government Summit in Dubai, he said there was a “need to remember that emergencies begin and end in our community”.
“The resilience and ability to cope in terms of a global emergency must come from our communities,” he added.
This makes sense. It will be difficult for the international community and aid agencies to maintain the intensity of the initial support efforts of the past few weeks. Dealing with the health effects of the earthquake — particularly the lingering psychological wounds of such a calamity — will require the consistent presence of skilled professionals embedded in stricken communities.
It is already well-understood that treating widespread mental-health trauma is a long-term need in the aftermath of a natural disaster. One psychiatric study carried out after the 2011 Christchurch earthquake in New Zealand found “persistent increases in anxiety disorder symptoms seven years after their onset”. Another report from 2017 found that post-traumatic stress disorder was “the most commonly occurring mental health condition among earthquake survivors”.
If the situation in Turkey is bad, then the one across the border in Syria is catastrophic. Medair, a European medical NGO, has described Syria’s healthcare system as “paralysed”, with many facilities being old or severely damaged by years of war. How much avoidable loss of life and suffering due to this lack of health care there can only be guessed at. Of course, some of the victims and survivors in Turkey are Syrian refugees who have gone through previous traumatic events in their home country.
As Monday night’s secondary earthquake proved, this is a calamity that is far from over. The race to help people in Turkey and Syria is, in a way, both a sprint and a marathon. The world has responded admirably in the initial dash to feed, clothe and shelter the victims.
However, being there for the long haul — maintaining the commitment to help traumatised survivors, as Hands of Angels does, will take resolve, political will and money. Let’s hope the world is not found wanting.