100 days after the quakes, Turkey’s children are still suffering

We are witnessing an epidemic of distress, bullying and self harm among children in provinces devastated by the February 6 disaster.

Children look on at an internal displacement camp at the Yeni Hatay Stadyumu in the aftermath of a deadly earthquake in Hatay, Turkey, February 10, 2023. REUTERS/Benoit Tessier
Children at an internal displacement camp at the Yeni Hatay Stadyumu in the aftermath of a deadly earthquake in Hatay, Turkey, on February 10, 2023 [Benoit Tessier/Reuters]

The scenes I witnessed in the aftermath of the February 6 earthquakes in Turkey were nothing like anything I’ve seen before. Aside from the seemingly endless piles of rubble, the cries of people suffering unspeakable loss, and the heroic search and rescue efforts, one thing I know I will never be able to forget from those early days is the empty, frozen look on children’s faces.

As people dug through the remnants of their collapsed homes in hopes of finding their loved ones, I couldn’t help but wonder how anyone, but especially children, would be able to recover from such devastation.

And 100 days later, children are still struggling.

Caregivers and school staff in affected areas told Save the Children teams that, unable to process their emotions, children are demonstrating more aggression. They told us that there is an increase in both physical and emotional bullying in friendship groups, and that some of the children who are not lashing out at others are self-harming.

Meanwhile, families are telling us that their children are still wetting their beds at night. This relatively manageable condition – usually an early sign of distress, anguish or abuse in children – has turned into a major source of distress and shame for many families as they still do not have easy access to facilities where they can wash soiled sheets.

Children responded to this unprecedented disaster and the disruption it caused in their lives in many different ways. For example, several children with disabilities, who were able to express themselves thanks to consistent support and education, have not uttered a word since the earthquakes.

A father in Turkey’s southern province of Hatay, Hasan*, recently talked to my colleagues about the toll the earthquakes had on his 12-year-old son, Ali*. He said the child is scared of public places, being alone, and even going to the bathroom without his parents.

Hasan’s family lost their home and many relatives in the disaster. He told our team, with tears running down his cheeks, that he has been struggling to cope with grief and that he had hit his child several times.

Save the Children’s mental health and psychosocial support teams are providing psychological first aid to parents like Hasan who are resorting to negative coping mechanisms, and referring those who need further support to partners who provide free psychological assistance.

Parents are trying to adapt to their new reality, but the challenges they face are daunting. Many are trying to survive in cramped, overcrowded conditions with up to 20 people in a single tent. Having so little space not only exposes children, particularly girls, to physical, mental and emotional abuse, but also robs families of the privacy they desperately need.

Parents and children need enough space to live with dignity and process their trauma. They also need access to mental health and psychosocial support to help regulate their emotions. Without these vital resources, cases of domestic and sexual violence may increase.

Overcrowding also poses a risk to social and community cohesion. Hatay, one of the provinces worst affected by the earthquakes, is also one of the oldest and most diverse cities in the world. Different communities harmoniously lived side by side in the city for centuries. Over the past decade, it has also welcomed many Syrians fleeing conflict. With more than half of the population now in need of shelter, however, Hatay’s communities are being forced to live practically on top of each other, and we are witnessing growing divisions and tensions between groups as a result.

As always, children are suffering from these simmering intercommunal tensions the most. I recently asked an 11-year-old child, Neslihan*, what she thought was needed to create harmony in communities. “We need to learn to live together,” she replied.

But, hope is a contagious feeling. And despite all the challenges, we are seeing children take small steps towards recovery.

Since the earthquakes, we have been visiting children in villages across Hatay province and supporting their mental health and psychosocial wellbeing through games and activities. Initially, many children were hesitant to participate or found it difficult to engage. However, over subsequent visits, we started seeing a gradual shift in their attitudes. More children started joining in, bringing their friends, and, as the group grew larger, they became more comfortable and playful – simply being children, once again. You could see the sense of relief on their parents’ faces.

A mother, Fatma* told us, “There are no schools and playgrounds, children are getting bored. No one has come to play with them except for your team. Thanks to you, my child can forget about the earthquake and feel a bit more normal, even if it’s only for a few hours.”

Now, 100 days on, the frozen look I have initially seen on so many children’s faces appears to be thawing. But we must remember that recovery and healing is a process that takes many months, if not years. Given the severity of the disaster and the extensive infrastructure and residential damage it caused, many children and their families will likely continue to experience stress and grief for years to come as they attempt to get their lives back together.

As the February 6 earthquakes move down the global news agenda, we should not forget that the disaster not only claimed tens of thousands of lives and left many more without a roof over their heads, but it also pushed children’s mental health to breaking point and ruined their psychosocial wellbeing. Without the right support, they may continue to suffer for years to come.

Ensuring that children feel safe again and return to a sense of normalcy as soon as possible is crucial to avoid long-term repercussions on their health, wellbeing and development. We can, and must, put children at the very centre of any efforts for recovery – the collective future of our communities depends on it.

*Names have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.