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Hundreds of thousands of pregnant women need help in earthquake-torn Turkey, Syria

As It Happens6:54356,000 pregnant women in earthquake-torn Turkey and Syria need urgent help: UN

Zeynep Atılgan Özgenç has trouble wrapping her mind around the harrowing stories she’s heard from new and expectant mothers in Turkey and Syria.

As a communications analyst for the United Nations’ sexual and reproductive health agency, Özgenç has spent the last nine days on the ground in some of the regions most affected by the powerful earthquake two weeks ago.

“I saw them in person. I heard their stories,” Özgenç, spokesperson for the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) in Turkey, told As It Happens host Nil Köksal. “I cannot still believe it is real.”

Among earthquake survivors, there are more than 226,000 pregnant women in Turkey and 130,000 in Syria right now who urgently need access to reproductive health care, according to UNFPA. Of those, 38,800 are expected to be delivered in the next month.

Many have lost their homes and all their possessions. Some have lost their friends and family, leaving them with no support network as they navigate their pregnancies. And all of them, UNFPA says, are struggling to access health care, hygiene products, or even basic necessities.

That’s because both countries are still picking up the pieces after a 7.8-magnitude earthquake hit Turkey on Feb. 6, killing at least 45,000 people — a number that could grow after a new quake hit the country on Monday.

Stories of loss and survival

Incredible stories about pregnant women have emerged from Turkey and Syria in the wake of the first earthquake.

A Yemeni woman gave birth just days after being pulled from the rubble in Malatya, Turkey.

A woman gave birth beneath the rubble of a five-storey apartment building in Jinderis, Syria. Rescuers found the newborn still connected by her umbilical cord to her mother, Afraa Abu Hadiya, who did not survive.

A newborn baby in an incubator.
A baby girl who was born under the rubble in Syria and Turkey receives treatment inside an incubator at a children’s hospital in the town of Afrin, Syria, on Feb. 9. (Ghaith Alsayed/The Associated Press)

Mohammad Alouch, a Syrian refugee living in Chester, NS, told CBC Nova Scotia last week that he’s worried about his sister, who is eight months pregnant and stranded in Gaziantep, Turkey, with her husband and two young children.

“It makes everyone sad because her health is not good and the baby is not good either and she has to have surgery and we don’t know how that will go,” he said. “The past week they could not have a shower or have hot food to eat or any of that.”

A couple sits outside on a curb with their two young daughters.
Noor Alouch, 25, is eight months pregnant and homeless with her husband and two children. Her family in Chester, NS, has been trying to speed up her immigration to Canada for over a year. (Mohammed Alouch)

Özgenç, too, has seen and heard stories from pregnant women who stick with him. She says one woman in Adiyaman, Turkey, was scheduled for a C-section the morning of the Feb. 6 quakes.

“They just left the house before it collapsed, then they watched it collapse,” she said.

Still in shock, the woman and her family started to make their way to the hospital for the procedure, only to realize that a huge section of the hospital had also collapsed. The section that remained operational was exclusively treating those injured in the quake.

For three days, Özgenç said, the family lived on the streets, in their cars or in shelters, until they were finally able to get out of town. Five days after her scheduled C-section, the woman finally delivered her child.

But the newborn, Özgenç says, isn’t faring well.

“The hospital and the doctors did everything they could,” she said. “Baby’s trying to survive right now.”

A woman lies in a bed with four babies.
Khawla, a 25-year-old earthquake survivor, receives care after delivering four babies via C-section at the Al Fardous Hospital in Syria, a facility run by the NGO Syria Relief & Development and supported by UNFPA. (Ahmad Aljarban/SRD/UNFPA)

Another woman in Adiyaman was eight months’ pregnant when she was buried under the rubble for a full day. Her mother pulled her out with her bare hands, Özgenç said.

The woman made it, but her two-year-old, who was buried with her, did not.

“The mother is healthy. Her unborn baby is healthy, too. But her trauma, her pain, is just indescribable,” Özgenç said. “It’s unimaginable, these stories.”

‘These services save lives’

To address the crisis, UNFPA says it’s working with partners to deploy mobile units to the worst affected regions in both countries to provide health care, social work and psychological care, and deliver kits with basic hygiene and maternity needs.

“Women and girls affected by the earthquakes must be safe and protected, and able to access quality sexual and reproductive health care when they need it,” UNFPA executive director Dr. Natalia Kanem said in a press release. “These services save lives and need to be an integral part of the response.”

On Monday, just as Özgenç had returned from her fact-finding mission to her home in Ankara, Turkey, a new 6.4-magnitude quake hit the town of Defne, in Turkey’s Hatay province, one of the areas most affected by the Feb. 6 quakes.

It was felt in Syria, Jordan, Israel and as far away as Egypt.

Officials said more buildings collapsed, trapping occupants, and several people were injured in both countries.

“It’s really hard to describe the feelings right, both as a person, as a Turkish citizen, and as a UN official,” Özgenç said. “We were just starting to heal.”


With files from The Associated Press and CBC News. Interview with Zeynep Atılgan Özgenç produced by Katie Geleff.