Syrians abroad fear political rifts will stop aid reaching quake victims

Aftermath of an earthquake in Aleppo
People gather on the rubble as the search for survivors continues, in the aftermath of the earthquake, in Aleppo, Syria February 7, 2023. REUTERS/Firas Makdesi

BERLIN, Feb 7 (Reuters) - Syrians living abroad who want to help victims of the earthquake which has killed thousands of people in the region say they are worried that donations will not reach those who need it due to deep political divisions in the war-torn country.

A magnitude 7.8 earthquake hit Turkey and Syria early on Monday, toppling apartment blocks, wrecking hospitals and leaving thousands of people injured or homeless.

At least 1,444 people were killed in Syria and about 3,500 injured, according to figures from the Damascus government and rescue workers in the northwestern region controlled by insurgents.

Molham Volunteering Team, a Syrian non-governmental organisation active in north-western areas, has already collected more than 1.6 million euros via an Instagram campaign.

However, its success has prompted complaints on social media that contributions will not get to Syrians in regions under the control of President Bashar al-Assad's government.

"Our team is prohibited from working in the government-controlled areas," Atef Nanoua, a founding member of Molham Team, told Reuters.

"I come from the town of Jableh, one of the areas most impacted by the earthquake and I would love to help my people there, but the Syrian regime only allows humanitarian aid from organisations affiliated with it," he said, adding:

"Anyone who cooperates with our organisation is regarded as a terrorist."

Around 80% of the donations came via Instagram from people in Europe, the United State and Australia, said Nanoua.

Some Syrians even said they fear donations will end up going to the government itself.

"Syrians abroad don't feel confident about sending donations to organizations that work under the control of President Assad despite the dire need," said Malath Alzoubi, 39, who lives in London.

Alzoubi said most Syrian expatriates believed the majority of aid donations would end up under the control of individuals close to the government.

In Damascus, there was no immediate response from a spokesperson at the Ministry of Local Administration to a Reuters request for comment on the assertion that political rifts would prevent aid reaching quake victims and that aid could end up with people connected to the government.

In New York, Syria's U.N. Ambassador Bassam Sabbagh met U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on Monday and said he asked for U.N. help. But Sabbagh told reporters any assistance had to be done in coordination with the government and delivered from within Syria and not across the Turkish border.

Syria has long been opposed to a humanitarian operation that has delivered aid into Syria from Turkey since 2014, saying assistance should be delivered via the Syrian capital Damascus.

German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock called on Russia to help pressure Syria into allowing in humanitarian aid for earthquake victims quickly and without additional obstacles.

Under the hastag #StopSanctionsOnSyrians and a map from the Flightradar24 website showing no flights over Syria, people called for an end to international sanctions against the war-torn country, now hit by its worst natural disaster in decades.

"Unfortunately ... from comments I saw on social media, people want to donate to one party and believe that other Syrian cities don't deserve aid because they are affiliated with another party," said Ali Fattouh, 36, a Syrian living in Dubai.

Reporting by Riham Alkousaa, Additional reporting by Timour Azhari and Michelle Nichols, Editing by William Maclean

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Riham Alkousaa is the energy and climate change correspondent for Reuters in Germany, covering Europe’s biggest economy's green transition and Europe’s energy crisis. Alkousaa is a Columbia University Journalism School graduate and has 10 years of experience as a journalist covering Europe’s refugee crisis and the Syrian civil war for publications such Der Spiegel Magazine, USA Today and the Washington Times. Alkousaa was on two teams that won Reuters Journalist of the year awards in 2022 for her coverage of Europe’s energy crisis and the Ukraine war. She has also won the Foreign Press Association Award in 2017 in New York and the White House Correspondent Association Scholarship that year.