'The need is urgent': Earthquakes in Syria and Türkiye turn crisis into catastrophe

Earthquakes have devastated Türkiye and parts of neighbouring Syria, where survivors took shelter in tents in the city of Idlib (photo by Muhammed Said/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

The powerful earthquakes that struck Türkiye and Syria this week have caused widespread destruction and claimed the lives of thousands in the region.

In Syria, people were already living in partially destroyed buildings and tents. A 12-year civil war has destabilized the country, causing a humanitarian and economic crisis that has displaced millions of people – including an estimated 3.6 million refugees who fled to neighbouring Türkiye.

Joan Simalchik

Joan Simalchik, professor emerita in the department of historical studies at U of T Mississauga, says the earthquakes have added a “heavy layer to the embedded tragedy” in the region.  

“There is an immediate urgent need to establish emergency hospitals, airlifts, and medical care and restore core services,” Simalchik says.

Organizations and governments around the world have donated millions of dollars and supplies to the devastated areas. The Canadian government has pledged to donate $10 million in aid and will match donations made to the Canadian Red Cross from Feb. 6 to 22.

In a statement earlier this week, Joseph Wong, U of T’s vice-president, international, expressed concern and sympathy for those affected by the disaster, urging members of the U of T community to support each other and to reach out for help if needed.

Beyond ensuring humanitarian aid reaches those affected – a task made more challenging in Syria by the ongoing civil war and the impact of sanctions – Simalchik says mental health services will need to be established to address the traumatic effects of the unfolding catastrophe. 

U of T News spoke with Simalchik about the international response so far and the challenges that lie ahead.

How would you describe the scale of the humanitarian crisis that is unfolding following the earthquakes in Türkiye and Syria?

Catastrophic. The number of deaths keeps growing with much of the area's infrastructure destroyed. At this moment more than 22,000 people have been confirmed dead. 

What are the implications of this disaster, now and over the longer-term, for the millions of people in Syria who have already been displaced because of the decade-long civil war? 

Refugees have already been in a prolonged desperate situation. While international aid agencies had been on the ground, funds for housing, health, and schooling were severely limited. The earthquake has exacerbated their conditions and the need is urgent to supplement already scarce resources. There is an immediate, urgent need to establish emergency hospitals, airlifts and medical care, and to restore core services such as food, water, shelter and warm clothing.

Beyond the physical rebuilding that will be required, there will be longer term issues involving family and kinship reunification and support. Importantly, it will be crucial to establish psychosocial services to address the traumatic effects of surviving the disaster.

In addition, the world's countries should set up mechanisms for permanent resettlement of long-term refugees. This disaster has brought them into visibility, but "out-of-sight" is not a solution to displacement.

What has the international response been like so far? 

It is still developing but the response from countries, organizations, and individuals has been as strong as typically the case in the immediate aftermath. The critical issue is to keep attention ongoing past the immediate devastation and crisis care. Once the cameras have been packed up, the needs do not disappear with them.

What does long-term recovery for the Syrian people look like following the earthquakes?

Long-term recovery will necessitate finding stable homes and resettlement. Only after uncertain life conditions are remedied, can people begin to address the multiple layers of trauma they have experienced (war, displacement, physical and emotional wounds, and loss of home, culture and community). The earthquakes have added a heavy layer to the embedded tragedy.

For members of the U of T community who may be moved or able to contribute to relief efforts:

The Government of Canada has created a matching program on donations to the Canadian Red Cross until Feb. 22, 2023. Details: Canadian Red Cross

Student groups across U of T's three campuses can post events to the Student Organization Portal, and members of the community can find opportunities to participate on the Events Calendar.

For members of the U of T community in need of support:


U of T My Student Support Program (My SSP) can be accessed 24/7 by phone or via the My SSP app.

Other mental health resources, programs and supports are available through the student mental health resource page.

Staff and faculty:

Employee and Family Assistance Program (1-800-663-1142)







The Bulletin Brief logo

Subscribe to The Bulletin Brief