In ‘miracle’ escape from earthquake, Syrian woman rescues children and bag of memories

February 15, 2023 - 3:38 PM
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Um Kanan, a Syrian woman who survived the quake along with her children, stands on the rubble of what was once her building, in the aftermath of a deadly earthquake, in Jableh, Syria February 14, 2023. (Reuters/Yamam al Shaar)

 When she felt the first tremors of the earthquake which hit Syria and Turkey last week, Um Kanan woke her three children and rushed them to a small closet in her bedroom for shelter, along with a collection of family photos and documents.

The force of the quake brought their fourth floor apartment in Syria’s Mediterranean town of Jableh crashing to the ground, killing almost all of their neighbors but leaving unscathed the four of them and their precious duffle bag of memories.

Um Kanan and her youngest child were tucked inside a space in the closet no more than a metre wide, while her two elder children huddled in a nook between the closet and her bed, using pillows to shield themselves when the building crumbled.

“I kept thinking to myself: ‘Can it be? Did the building just fall down? Is this a dream?’ I tried to move but I couldn’t,” she said. “The children and I, by some miracle, we ended up in this small space that I had left empty.”

Her husband, a military officer, also survived. He was not at home when the 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck, killing more than 5,000 people in Syria and 35,000 to the north in Turkey.

But the mother and children were still trapped in the ruins. They called out for help from rescuers, who cleared the wreckage above them.

“They removed the roof from over the closet and thankfully pulled the two kids out okay, and me and my youngest as well, and I pulled out the bag I had packed with me.”

Their home was a mess of broken concrete, and their furniture and belongings were crushed underneath. So they made their way to a relative’s house with their one remaining possession.

Feeling uneasy in the hours leading up to the earthquake, Um Kanan said she had prepared the bag the day before, filling it with family certificates, IDs and her marriage certificate, as well as photo albums and videos.

“We had been living in that house for some eight years and I had never thought about storing things this way before,” she said, fighting back tears as she thumbed through an album of pictures and pulled out a video of her wedding.

Recalling the moment she walked from the wreckage with her bag, she said she had felt victorious.

“I was so happy that we all came out safe – and I took my memories with me.”

—Reporting by Yamam al Shaar; Writing by Dominic Evans; Editing by Rosalba O’Brien