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“All Our Memories are Buried Under the Rubble:” Survivors of the Syrian Earthquake, Three Sisters Share Their Story of Resilience and Hope

When a powerful, 7.5-magnitude earthquake struck northwest Syria, sisters Judi, Julli, and Sidra narrowly escaped death. Here, they share their story of resilience and hope.

Photo: Getty

It was four in the morning in a small village called AlQabou near the coastal city of Lattakia, Syria. Three sisters, 18-year-old twins Judi and Julli and 15-year-old Sidra, slept peacefully in their beds, snuggled up under blankets, feeling safe and warm on a cold winter’s night. In a flash, the earth started to shake, marking the dawn of a day that would become the most catastrophic of the century. A devastating 7.5-magnitude earthquake struck parts of Turkey and Syria on February 6.

A day earlier, while Sidra was at school, her sisters had spent what they describe as an “exceptionally good time” at the campus of the university where they were studying their first year of Informatics Engineering. “It was a great day. We felt overwhelmed with love and happiness as we were surrounded by our peers and friends,” they recall. The twins usually stay at their relative’s house as the campus is far from their home, but on that day, they decided to spend the night with their family. “It was as if we knew that we had to be with them…it was divinely planned,” Judi shares. The family cooked their favorite dish Warak Enab and gathered for dinner. They never imagined it would be their last in a home they had built with love and excitement for the future.

“We were asleep when the first quake hit; we didn’t feel it; but we woke up when the second one struck and shook everything around us,” recalls Judi. The twins were sleeping together in the same room; a space full of beautiful memories. “We had all of our photos and toys from our childhood in that room,” Julli laments. The two sisters rushed out of the room, leaving behind the framed certificates of local swimming competitions they had won, the pink wall they designed collapsing behind them. In another room, where their younger sister Sidra was in a deep sleep, a beautiful painting of a piano swayed violently on a yellow wall, along with a stash of makeup products Sidra had cherished and collected over the years. “I didn’t feel the quake, but I woke up from the terrified screams of my sisters,” Sidra explains. As she tried to flee, she faced the same fate as the rest of the family – buried under the rubble of their collapsing home.

Julli, who was the first to wake from the earthquake, remembers how a closet fell on her as she tried to escape. “My mother rushed to me and lifted the closet and pulled me out. I still don’t know how she had the strength to do that,” she shares. “We had no time to run away; the building crashed down on top of us before we even reached the main door of the house,” Judi explains. A few minutes passed before the sisters realized that they were trapped under the rubble. The first thing they did was check on each other to make sure that everyone was alive. “At the beginning, we were unable to speak, especially my sick father who suffers from high blood pressure and who had just had surgery,” recalls Judi. “We were trapped on top of each other. My mother, who was the most injured, was under a heavy steel door and my father’s hand was stuck in the door,” she describes. “We were all caught in a very small space; we could not even move our hands, and our faces were covered with pieces of broken brick and shattered glass,” Julli adds.

The family turned to their faith to remain hopeful during what was the most traumatic experience of their lives. “By the grace of God who gave us patience, I never lost hope and whenever my father felt exhausted and could not endure the pain, we would shout loudly, reciting the Qur’an to encourage him and give him hope,” Judi says. “We recited some verses, which we strongly believed would give us the ultimate strength and resilience such as Surah Al-Fatihah and Surah An-Nasr. We were praying to Allah calling out his divine names, especially The Almighty,” she continues. In the darkest moment, the family felt their hearts were filled with divine light as Julli expresses, “There was always a light streaming in on us. It felt like it was sent from God to remind us that we were looked after and that we would survive.” Judi emphasizes, “We did not lose consciousness. We didn’t feel hunger or thirst for one single second during almost 18 hours under the rubble.”

“When I heard the sounds of the rescue workers, I felt a great sense of relief and joy,” Julli describes of the moment they knew that their prayers were finally answered. She adds, “I was frightened when I overheard them say that it was almost impossible to remove all the ruins that we were buried under, but I didn’t tell my sisters so that they could hold onto their hope to survive.” Sidra offers, “We tried to scream out for help one at a time so that we wouldn’t lose our voices.” Judi remembers, “I could hear the noise of a tractor that was removing the rubble, but the sound stopped at some point and at that moment I was terrified that they had given up trying to find us, so we started screaming at the top of our lungs to give them a sign that we were there and that we were still alive. Finally, we were pulled out using ropes through a very narrow hole.” The family was rushed to the hospital to be treated for their injuries. “We kept asking about our parents,” she continues. “We thought that they were hiding something from us; that perhaps our parents didn’t make it, but thank God, we saw them at the end and made sure that they were okay even though they were badly injured. My mother still can’t feel or move her leg.”

Returning to their home and standing at the wreckage of what was once the house of their dreams, the sisters felt disheartened, surrounded by destruction and bearing witness to the tragic aftermath. “Friends and people we know have lost their lives and it is devastating,” Sidra mourns. But for the young girl there is a silver lining even in the worst of situations. “Everything is lost,” she says. “Our house that we designed and built is gone now with all our memories buried under the rubble, but I am grateful that we are alive and that my family is safe.”

The three sisters, who are now staying with their parents at their aunt’s house, recognize that this experience has completely changed their lives. “We have learned how to hold on to hope and also give it to those who are still helpless,” Judi says. “We should always give what we can and spread love because it is the only way. Whenever you do good, it will come back to you.” The sisters are donating all the aid they have been receiving to those who they believe are less fortunate. They appeal to the international community to offer financial support to relief groups, instead of only sending goods. “Our aspiration is to help through local and international organizations and contribute more to our devastated people who need mental and financial support more than ever,” Julli says. “We hope that after this hardship, people will love each other more and have more empathy. We want our voices to reach the world.”

Originally published in the March 2023 issue of Vogue Arabia

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