by Osman Yıldız, Save the Children’s Mental Health and Psychosocial Support (MHPSS) Officer in Hatay
Ali* says that he remembers the earthquake once he sees the streets, yet feels like it never happened when he attends the semi-structured PSS activities implemented in the Community Center.
The scene after the earthquakes in Türkiye was like nothing I’ve seen before. Aside from the never-ending piles of rubble, the cries of family members suffering unspeakable loss, and the heroic efforts of those who joined the search and rescue team, what I can’t forget is the empty look I found on children’s faces. Frozen from the shock. While people dug through collapsed buildings in the hope of finding loved ones alive, I couldn’t help but wonder how anyone was supposed to recover from this.
Children who are struggling with their emotions are demonstrating more aggression. We have heard from caregivers and school staff that emotional and physical bullying amongst friendship groups has increased. In some cases, children aren’t lashing out at others but are hitting themselves. Many families are telling us that their children still wet the bed at night – a common sign of distress, anguish or abuse. Something once manageable has turned to struggle and shame without somewhere to wash their sheets. Reactions to disruption caused by disaster can take many forms. Children with disabilities who had started to express themselves after years of accessing education have not uttered a word since the earthquakes.
Children are most at risk in the aftermath of any disaster. For 100 days, children and caregivers in Türkiye’s southern province of Hatay have been trying to come to terms with what happened.
My colleague Nazlican told me she recently spoke to a father, Hasan*, in his 40s, in Hatay, who was explaining the emotional toll the earthquakes had on his child, Ali*, who is 12 years old. The child feared going to public spaces, being alone, and even going to the bathroom without his parents. The family lost their home and many relatives, and the father was trying to find space to cope with his own grief. He told our team with tears running down his cheeks 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 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. For many, living conditions are cramped and overcrowded, with up to 20 people in a single tent. Having such little space not only exposes children, particularly girls, to physical, mental, and emotional abuse, but also robs families of the privacy they once had. What once occurred behind closed doors is now more exposed. Parents and children need enough space to live, and 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 is not only one of the worst-affected provinces in the country but also one of the oldest and most diverse cities in the world. Over the past decade, it has also become the home of many Syrians fleeing conflict. With more than half of the population in Hatay now in need of shelter, these communities are living side-by-side and we are witnessing growing divisions and tensions between groups. As always, children will feel the impact of this strain the most. I recently asked a child what she thought was needed to create harmony in communities. Neslihan*, who is 11 years old, replied: “We need to learn to live together”.
Despite the challenges, my visits to various communities have repeatedly shown me that hope is a contagious feeling. In the aftermath of the earthquakes, we have been visiting children in villages across Hatay province and providing support for 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 slowly started seeing a 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, I can see those frozen expressions thawing into something else, though we must remember that recovery and healing is a process that take months, if not years. Given the size of the disaster and the extensive infrastructure and residential damage, many children and their families are likely be exposed to prolonged stress and grief 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 children’s mental health and psychosocial wellbeing is being pushed to the limits, and without the right support, the long-term psychological toll on children will be huge. Ensuring that children can feel safe again and go back to a sense of normalcy as soon as possible is crucial to avoid long-term repercussions on their health, wellbeing and development for years to come.
There is still hope that by tapping into the collective resilience, for children starting to heal.
*Names had been changed to protect identitie