‘Syrians are starving,’ says Irish Jesuit in Aleppo

August 24, 2023 in Featured News, News

Fr Tony O’Riordan SJ, Director of Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) Syria, gives an account of the continued devastation after the earthquake that hit Syria and Turkey in February 2023. Based in Aleppo, Syria, he says that survivors are now starving, with nine in ten people in Syria needing assistance. His fear is that these people will be forgotten as the crisis becomes less visible in the news.

The Irish Examiner, who interviewed Fr O’Riordan, reported on the story:

A priest from Cork who is working in Syria with survivors of one of the world’s deadliest earthquakes ever recorded has said that, six months on, the people there are now “starving”.

The estimated death toll of the earthquake — measuring 7.8 on the Richter scale — is in the region of 59,259, with 50,783 dead in Turkey and 8,476 in Syria.

Fr Tony O’Riordan from Kilmichael, Co Cork, is leading the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) in Aleppo and he said nine in every 10 people in Syria need assistance.

While the official figure for the death toll in the city of Aleppo stands at 1,600, officials say the exact number is unknown.

Fr O’Riordan told the Irish Examiner: “This place was hell before the earthquake so you can only image now what it is like, and this retraumatises people.

“The appalling thing is, at the recent UN Security Council briefing at the end of June, the UN humanitarian chief Martin Griffiths said they had to slash food aid by 40% in July, so we are facing a humanitarian disaster because of underfunding as hunger rises.”

“It’s six months on and more people are in deeper need of food assistance. We have an explosion of people in need and the international donors are underfunding the response plan.

The 53-year-old priest said: “Everyone is starving. It is just hunger daily. The Syrians are living without essential medicines. Two million children are out of education. I’ve never seen a situation like it. It really is most desperate.

“My fear is, as the months have gone on, and the news cycle moves on and it’s less visual, these people will be forgotten when this remains a crisis”.

Fr O’Riordan was previously based in Moyross in Limerick, before he went to Maban in South Sudan where he led a response to drought and floods for three years.

He is now overseeing the earthquake response for Jesuit Refugee Service in Syria with the funding through Irish Jesuits International (IJI).

Since the earthquake, the JRS has assisted more than 22,000 households where there is an average of five people in need of food.

They have also given more than 10,000 adults and 2,000 children psychological support.

He said: “There is a lot of sweat and worry with this. But we are helping, and we have 11 health clinics and 140 volunteers.

“Life for so many families has been extremely tough, with the war, huge destruction, the lack of electricity and fuel to warm houses in a very cold city, and excessive heatwave temperatures of over 40C in recent weeks — it all makes it worse”.

Even before the earthquake happened on February 6 this year, 61% of people in Aleppo were food insecure and access to non-food items such as winter clothing and blankets was becoming difficult compared to previous years.

Fr O’Riordan said he was 400km away when the first earthquake hit at 4.30am followed by a second one at 1pm.

“I felt the tremor but nothing too scary or frightening for me,” he said.

“It was only the 20 minutes after that my phone started pinging. I went to Aleppo the next day which is over 400km away.

“I saw first a large six-storey building which just collapsed like a flattened sponge cake.

“It is a city of culture and confidence, and now these people are just drained. It wasn’t just the buildings that collapsed it was also the spirt of the people.

“At least 90% of households have no way of lighting the house at night with little or no food, poor sanitation — and to buy simple medicine for a sick child can cost over half the household income.

“We just hope people can help as we don’t want this crisis to be forgotten about”.

Donations can be made on the Irish Jesuits International website ».