Those displaced by the Syria earthquake join millions already living in tents

By Mahmoud Hassano and Timour Azhari

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Five years ago, Syrian man Sabri Al Salameh fled war-torn Homs for Harem, a town near the Turkish border. Now his home there is gone too, destroyed by another cataclysm, this time created by nature and not man.

Nearly two million Syrians, displaced by government fighting and bombing during the country’s 11-year war, were living in refugee camps in the rebel-held northwest before last week’s big earthquake.

It has hit that part of Syria hardest, and Salameh, 59, is one of thousands whose homes have been leveled, sparking a new wave of displacement that is stretching the country’s already thin humanitarian resources even further.

“I’ve lost everything around me, I’ve lost everyone I know in the three buildings that used to be next to me,” said Salameh, who was sitting in front of the large tent where he, his wife and six children are now housed life.

“We’ve lost… neighbors, friends, and co-workers.”

The quake killed at least 4,400 people in north-west Syria, according to the United Nations, leaving millions in need of assistance.

Harem, where houses have been reduced to rubble, was the worst affected city.

Salameh’s tent stands in a schoolyard, one of dozens of beige-and-white structures lined up in rows — an all-too-familiar sight in a region that’s home to the vast majority of Syria’s internally displaced people.

Firewood lies in a heap next to newly pitched tents while children play, taking turns sliding down a rocky slope.

The facility is said to be temporary, but in this part of Syria many have been living like this for years.

A month before the quake, the United Nations Humanitarian Coordinating Agency warned of a crisis in north-west Syria, saying 1.8 million people were “trapped” in severely overcrowded camps that were subject to frequent flooding and fires.

International aid needed to build long-term shelters and other infrastructure is lacking, said Emma Beals, a nonresident fellow specializing in Syria at the Middle East Institute in Washington.

She fears that even the tragedy of the earthquake might not persuade the world to change this picture.

“Even though early intervention work has been expanded in government areas, the response to the conflict in the Northwest has not focused on how to make the lives of people in that area livable,” she said.

“Can that happen again?”

Salameh said he learned not to expect much.

“The needs of the displaced are well known: a tent, food and water. What, do we want a home too? … Thank God we took refuge in this tent.”

(Reporting by Mahmoud Hassano in Idlib and Timour Azhari in Beirut; Writing by Timour Azhari; Editing by John Stonestreet)


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