Syrian Women Face Mental Health Crisis After Earthquake
Shaza Hamo considers herself among the lucky ones. The 36-year-old activist and mother of five survived the 7.8-magnitude earthquake that killed at least 50,000 people in Syria and Turkey last month.
Hamo lost her home, her money and all of her belongings. Still, she called and checked on the women in her community, often running to find infant formula for her friends’ babies, despite the fact that she never knew where she would be staying on a given night. She jumped from one friend’s place to another.
But then another earthquake rocked southern Turkey near the Syrian border last week. For the first time in her life, Hamo and her 15-month-old slept in the streets. Hamo found herself as vulnerable as the women whose mental and physical well-being she used to care for.
Nearly 3 million people were impacted by the earthquake in northwest Syria, where Hamo lives. Over 300,000 people are now displaced and at least 11,000 families are now homeless.
Earthquake survivors in Syria don’t know how to begin rebuilding. Their nation has been at war for more than a decade, meaning thousands of people are displaced, poverty levels continue to rise and public infrastructure is nearly decimated. Syrian women in particular are suffering from a mental health crisis, facing the brunt of compounding trauma marked by years of death, destruction and despair that has only been exacerbated by the latest earthquakes.
After the 2011 pro-democracy protests in Syria turned into a civil war, many men died or left to fight, forcing women to shoulder the responsibilities both inside and outside the home including finding shelter and food, raising children and securing employment. Women were now the breadwinners and the decision-makers.
But those changes came abruptly, and at a cost. Women also became more susceptible to abuse, sexual exploitation and gender-based violence. Organizations that provided resources and safe haven to women, including one founded by Hamo, were destroyed or shut down. Women and children have for years faced internal and external displacement, which has taken a toll on their physical and psychological health.
After the earthquake, Amel Lakhdari, the founder of the Middle East North Africa (MENA) Women’s Coalition, a group of women-led grassroots organizations including Hamo’s, began pairing therapists, counselors and psychotherapists from around the world with women in Syria.
Most of the women she has worked with are clinically traumatized, depressed or anxious, said Lakhdari.
Even before the latest tragedy, suicide rates in the region were on the rise, according to 2021 data from the International Rescue Committee.
“There has been a lot of suicidal ideation,” Hamo told HuffPost over the phone from Idlib. “These women were already traumatized and then add to that the earthquake and with its impacts, it doesn’t help.”
“They are living a life of no security, no stability, and they lost a lot. When the earthquake came, they were already broken.”
– Dahane Saliha, clinical psychologist who treats Syrian women
Dahane Saliha, a clinical psychologist based in Algeria and one of the many practitioners treating Syrian women remotely through the MENA Women’s Coalition, said two of the women she is working with are the main breadwinners of their families and are in charge of taking care of young children. Both the women and their children suffered from PTSD symptoms, including night terrors and bedwetting.
“They are living a life of no security, no stability, and they lost a lot,” Saliha said. “When the earthquake came, they were already broken.”
Daily stressors from the conflict such as the lack of access to basic needs, loss of family, and uncertainty about the future are all compounding triggers for everyday Syrians living throughout violence and war.
Lakhdari said women, especially those with young children, have felt abandoned by the international community.
Immediately after the earthquake, aid groups struggled to swiftly access the impacted regions. In Turkey, fuel shortages, a lack of trained rescue teams and political bureaucracy delayed crucial life-saving resources. The situation was worse in Syria, as nonprofits navigated donor fatigue and government permissions to travel through dangerous borders, and faced the risk of airstrikes.
“You just see the sadness and almost like a hopelessness in their eyes,” said Sophia Banu, a psychiatrist from Dallas, Texas, who went to Syria and Turkey on a humanitarian mission with MedGlobal, a humanitarian nonprofit that provides emergency response in disaster regions.
Zaher Sahloul, a Syrian American and the president of MedGlobal, told HuffPost in a Zoom call from Syria that international aid, which is distributed by President Bashar Assad’s regime, is manipulated and weaponized, often not making it to those most vulnerable.
“Although they’ve been through crisis after crisis for 12 years, this is different,” said Dania Albaba, a Syrian-American from Houston and a third-year psychiatry resident at Baylor College of Medicine. “People think of Syria as a place that is constantly ravaged by crisis and disaster and displacement of people. But this has really affected people psychologically in a very different way.”
Hamo said the need for safe spaces for women is more urgent than ever. The women’s empowerment center she founded in 2017, which acted as a resource and shelter for women, was forced to shut down in 2022 due to a lack of support.
She’s particularly worried about mothers. If they break, their families could crumble with them.
Nora Abdullah, a third-year psychiatry resident at the University of Texas Southwestern in Dallas who was also on the MedGlobal trip, said that Syrian women have long been disproportionately impacted by both acute and chronic trauma and fatigue.
“There was a sense of urgency just from a perspective of people that have dealt with so much trauma for so long,” Abdullah said.
The earthquake will only make it more challenging to recover from the decades of isolation and war.
“The trauma here is ongoing. It hasn’t ended,” Albaba said. “All these little tremors and minor earthquakes are still affecting the children and are still affecting women. They just don’t feel comfortable. They feel like they’re reliving the same experience over and over and over again.”