The beginning of a new chapter: rebuilding after the earthquakes

Buthayna Elfaris, 36, is a Turkish-Syrian woman who fled the war in Syria in 2013 with her husband, baby son and unborn child, after losing her first son to the conflict.

Her house in Antakya, Turkiye, where she lived with her sons, aged 9 and 11, and her husband, was destroyed by the February 2023 earthquakes, and she is now working for Oxfam KEDV as an interpreter supporting the humanitarian response in Hatay province. Here she shares her story of survival – and how working with other survivors gives her a critical sense of purpose and hope.

"I show them love and they show me love in return. I try to help people feel safe." Buthayna works for Oxfam KEDV in the emergency response team. She's a Syrian refugee whose home in Türkiye was destroyed by the earthquake. Image: Mustafa Karali/Oxfam

Buthayna stands wearing a brown hijab and sunglasses and an Oxfam vest. There are people in the background.

Ten years ago, as rockets were fired and bombs dropped from planes onto my city, my husband and I made the heart-wrenching decision to leave our home in Syria with our baby.

At first, I cried and screamed that I wouldn’t leave. This was my home – the place where my first-born son lost his life. I preferred to die than to leave my country. It wasn’t until a rocket hit our house and my baby started crying that I relented: it was time to begin a new life in Türkiye. I was injured in the attack, but I didn’t even notice the blood gushing from my leg. I was two weeks pregnant at the time.

When I first arrived here in Türkiye, I cried every day. But after two months, I started working in a school in an orphanage. I was teaching English to children who were in a terrible situation, who felt totally alone in the world. It made me feel better to be there for them and they helped me, too – every day, the seed of hope inside me grew.

Ever since we arrived in Türkiye, I wanted to build a house for my family. A place where my children could be happy and grow. I worked hard and was so proud to build my dream home. I planted a garden on our balcony that I nurtured and photographed every day – especially in spring and summer.

But in February, in just a few minutes, that dream was shattered by the earthquake. I lost everything I’d built. Now, I’m living through the same challenges I experienced during the war all over again. As a teacher in Syria, I lost many students to the war. This time, I lost a beautiful little nine-year-old student who was always smiling. She was buried under the rubble.

Now, my two sons are living with my parents and brother in Ankara, but I decided to stay in Hatay, because the people who need help are here. I’m working with Oxfam KEDV as an interpreter. Right now, we have local staff working alongside international staff, so I play an important front-line facilitation role when we distribute aid and connect with different Turkish communities as well as Syrian refugee communities about their needs. But I also show them love and they show me love in return. I try to help people feel safe. I tell them, ‘you are not alone, we are close to you. I will support you, I will listen to you’.

At one hygiene kit distribution, I spoke with an older woman. She told me about the earthquake and the people she had lost. I told her it’s important that we stay strong for our families but most importantly, for ourselves. You have to take care of yourself first of all. If you take care of yourself, you can take care of your community. That’s what I’m doing now – taking care of myself so I can take care of my children, my parents, my brother, and my community.

For me, the work is a challenge, but it makes me feel better – it’s like a remedy for me. When you can provide help to people in the same situation as you, that gives you strength. When they look at me and smile, they give me strength. After the earthquake, I was interviewed by a journalist who offered me money afterwards, but I refused it. Money is not important to me - a smile is so much more valuable.

This is the beginning of a new chapter in my life. I thank God that I am strong. I have lots of ambitions. I want to build my third house and plant new flowers. I will create a huge garden for my children.