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The quake in Turkey and Syria left at least 50,000 dead. What about the survivors?

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

According to the United Nations, the death toll from last month's earthquake in Turkey and Syria has now surpassed 50,000 - 50,000. And then you think of how many people still alive are impacted by that number - the families and friends grieving, the people left without a home or the mental toll on first responders who rushed in to help. Well, to talk about the psychological impact of the earthquake, we're joined by Dr. Alexandra Chen. She is a trauma psychologist. She's been working with Syrians for the last decade, including those who fled Syria's civil war. Dr. Chen, welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

ALEXANDRA CHEN: Thank you, Mary Louise.

KELLY: Tell me what you're hearing from your patients in the region who have been impacted by the earthquake. How are they coping? What kind of things are they telling you?

CHEN: So the shock of experiencing the earthquake - for some of them, they were not aware at first what it was and were afraid that it might be something else, an attack or a bomb, and has even, over the last three weeks, not entirely worn off and not only because there have been multiple quakes and aftershocks since, but also because of the traumatic memories that the tremors and losing their homes and being displaced and the experience of having to sleep on the streets and be very insecure has triggered.

KELLY: Hmm. So an earthquake is just the latest in the string of compounding traumas that some of your patients have experienced?

CHEN: Yes, unfortunately. As one of them described to me, it's like he has been in a constant storm. And he was an unaccompanied refugee minor himself at the age of 15, 10 years ago, and fled from Syria to Turkey on his own - somehow made it and survived. But he said that he has never felt a moment where he's not in the storm.

KELLY: Oh.

Give me a little bit more information about just some of the practical things that you're saying to help people get through this immediate moment of trauma before they can even begin to start thinking about healing. I mean, take me into that conversation.

CHEN: Sure. We often counsel parents to give children different tasks and responsibilities. It helps them to feel less helpless and to feel a little bit more involved in ways that are positive. And so even, you know, if you assigned a child - their job is to take care of all the phones and make sure that they're charged. That little task in emergency setting is a very important one, and they can feel a bit of pride and focus instead of just being overwhelmed by the chaos.

We also give a lot of - how to say - support in terms of the practicalities of being a parent in these settings. I'll give you an example. So with a lot of them who have been, and continue to be, sleeping - unfortunately - on the streets, their conditions are quite dangerous, and there have been reports of child trafficking as well. So the parents are very nervous, obviously, and no one has really been able to sleep. So one of the practical things we say to parents is take turns sleeping.

KELLY: I understand you also see patients who are front-line workers...

CHEN: Yes.

KELLY: ...You know, who raced in, who are dealing with trauma of a different type. What kind of advice are you able to give them?

CHEN: So in these settings, our advice for front-line workers are, you know, as we always say, you cannot pull from an empty cup. The other is finding small ways. You know, I send them five-minute meditations - often these are things that we've practiced together in session - as well as a reminder of re-centering and being able to find their strength in a moment that - where everything feels very out of control and then also being, I think, forgiving of themselves in moments where - there's so many of them will say, what if? Well, you know, I heard a voice there under the rubble, but I wasn't sure. And I didn't highlight it as a priority, and, had we gotten there fast, you know, could we have saved more people? There's a lot of self-doubt in these moments. And sometimes, you know, they snap at each other because they're so stressed and frustrated and under-slept. So I think just kindness with one another gives a piece of healing in a very difficult time, fully.

KELLY: Dr. Alexandra Chen is a trauma psychologist based in London, who travels to see patients in Turkey, Iraq, Lebanon. Thank you so much for your time and for your work.

CHEN: Thank you so much. I appreciate it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
Linah Mohammad
Prior to joining NPR in 2022, Mohammad was a producer on The Washington Post's daily flagship podcast Post Reports, where her work was recognized by multiple awards. She was honored with a Peabody award for her work on an episode on the life of George Floyd.
Justine Kenin
Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.