A day after the earthquake struck, Mohamad Sadat Snunu found his cousins’ names listed among the dead.Their homes in Haram, a border town in the northwest of Syria in the Idlib region, had crumbled. Snunu had heard about the earthquakes on the news.
“Anyone who [they] took out of the rubble they post their names on Facebook,” said Snunu on Friday, sitting next to his father Mahmud at their home in Carlow, more than 3,800km away from the disaster.
On the table in front of them, on a tablecloth that said “Blessed Ramadan” in Arabic, is a mirrored tray with tea, dates, prunes, dried figs and home-baked cookies.
Among the close relatives of the Snunus still in Syria, the earthquake has wiped out one entire family, says Snunu.
Two kids, now parentless – whose father was Snunu’s cousin – are the only surviving members of another family in the northwest of the country,an area in the hands of opposition forces and so harder for international aid organisations to reach. Years of civil war have carved the country in two.
Snunu, who is an Irish citizen, has been trying from a distance to get them to safety.
He has relied on Sinéad Tynan, a volunteer community worker in Carlow, to be the family’s voice, pressing politicians and aid agencies for help to get these children across the border into Turkey.
If they can get to Turkey, their grandmother, who lives there as a refugee, will mind them, said Tynan. But so far, no one has offered to help with this.
“Not even a word of condolences to the family from the Tánaiste’s office,” said Tynan on Friday morning.
What Tynan wants most of all, she says, is help getting official confirmation that if she and Snunu travel to Syria themselves, they will all be able to cross together into Turkey.
A spokesperson for Ireland’s Department of Foreign Affairs hasn’t yet responded to queries sent on Friday, including one asking whether it had any policy to help Irish citizens impacted by the recent earthquakes to bring their families to safety.
When in early February, Tynan started writing to government officials and charities, Shoaib, Snunu’s cousin and the kids’ father, was still alive.
He had a broken spinal cord. But local hospitals didn’t have the equipment for life-saving surgery on his spine, said Snunu on Friday.
For that, he also needed to be transferred to Turkey, a country itself devastated by the earthquakes.
“After one week or something, he dies,” said Snunu.
The Tánaiste’s secretary had sent an acknowledgement email to Tynan on 9 February.
On 27 February, and by the time Shoaib had died, a final response said that two additional border crossings had opened to help get aid to areas of Syria not controlled by the state.
It says that the Department of Foreign Affairs is helping the efforts and has allocated €10 million in humanitarian support so far.
But the response speaks generally about Ireland’s aid packages and advocacy for opening border crossings and doesn’t mention Snunu’s particular circumstances and what support is available to families like his.
On Tuesday afternoon, Tynan said she got a phone call from the Department of Foreign Affairs, during which they told her it couldn’t negotiate with Turkish officials to help because “the children are not Irish citizens”.
On 15 February, someone from the Irish Red Cross wrote to Tynan saying that there was no access to the Idlib region in northwest Syria to help move Shoaib to a Turkish hospital for the operation.
“We are therefore not in a position to support this request,” says the email.
On 14 February, someone at the Dublin office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said in an email to Tynan that it’s not involved in medical evacuations.
And since Shoaib was a Syrian citizen, he “unfortunately would not be under the protection mandate of the UN Refugee Agency”, says the email.
In her emails to politicians and aid agencies, Tynan relays what happened over and over again.
She points out how the family are on the side of the country known as “Free Syria”, where international aid lies far out of people’s reach because it’s not under the control of Assad’s government.
In one email, she shared a photo of the kids in the Snunu family, who had died trapped under the debris. The picture shows three smiling little girls, in pink and purple jumpers and tracksuits, cuddled together.
When she contacted UNHCR to say how Shoaib had died and that now his six-year-old boy needed help, a UNHCR worker said their response of 14 February still stood but that they were sorry for the loss.
At that time, Tynan says, the Snunus didn’t know that Shoaib’s three-year-old daughter was still alive. They found out later.
“No one would tell me if there are any aid workers in the Idlib area,” said Tynan.
But Tynan said a UNICEF worker has been most empathetic in responding to her emails, suggesting at the end that Snunus lodge a family reunification application.
Tynan says she is willing to travel to Syria with Snunu if no one else can help but wants reassurance from government officials or aid agencies that the kids can leave the area under the opposition control and cross the border back to Turkey with them.
“If we can get confirmation that the children will be allowed into Turkey with us we will begin immediately making arrangements to fly to Turkey,” said Tynan.
On Tuesday afternoon, Tynan said the Department of Foreign Affairs worker who called her said the department “strongly advises” her not to travel to Turkey or Syria.
She says the Snunu family is grateful that they’re safe in Ireland – “we don’t want to be too negative” – but had suffered so much even before losing relatives in the earthquake.
The family had tried to bring a sister who lives as a refugee in Turkey to visit when Mahmud, the father, fell ill with throat cancer five years ago, but they couldn’t get a visa, said Tynan.
“The Irish embassy asks for a document we don’t have,” said Snunu, as his father, who has had surgery on his throat and often reached under a thick scarf to press a button to speak to his son in Arabic, nodded.
On Tuesday, Tynan said Snunu, in particular, is badly hit by grief after the recent disaster. “And he’s an Irish citizen, and the [Department of Foreign Affairs] is letting him down, they’re letting me down, they’re letting all of us down,” she said during a phone call.
While the EU’s Temporary Protection Directive gives visa-free access to the zone and refugee status to people from Ukraine, others fleeing war and grappling with disasters in other corners of the world aren’t guaranteed the same protections.
Between 2018 to 2021, only 241 Syrians were allowed into Ireland under the Irish Refugee Protection Programme Humanitarian Admission (IHAP),according to official figures.
Tynan says that Syrian refugees like Snunu, already scarred by the war and now re-traumatised by the loss and grief that the earthquake brought on, deserve more support.
The two children should be considered refugees, she says. “You would think anybody with a heart, any border guard on the Turkish border, would allow these two children through.”
Shamim Malekmian covers the immigration beat for Dublin Inquirer. Reach her at email@example.com
More by Shamim Malekmian