Gaziantep, Turkey – When Kasem al-Abrash felt the ground shake under his feet, his thoughts immediately returned to his hometown of Idlib in northern Syria.
From there, in 2020, he fled for his life to Gaziantep, across the border in Turkey.
But on Monday morning, like millions of people across southern Turkey and northern Syria, al-Abrash awoke to a powerful 7.8-magnitude earthquake that struck the wider region and left death and destruction in its wake.
“I realized, oh no, actually I should be in a safe place, in Turkey,” al-Abrash said.
He immediately ran down the building because parts of his apartment collapsed.
His thoughts immediately went to his family and friends still in Syria, where the earthquake also destroyed countless lives.
“In Syria, I learned to manage these kinds of situations, but I never expected to have to relive that trauma,” al-Abrash said.
He is not the only one who arrived in Gaziantep seeking refuge, only to be cruelly surprised by Monday’s earthquake.
When 21-year-old law student Karina Horlach woke up in the early hours of the morning in her violently shaking bed, she remembered the last time she was in Ukraine.
“It’s February, and exactly one year ago I was woken up by the same bed shaking,” Horlach told Al Jazeera, panic in her voice. “But then I realized that I was not in Ukraine. It took me a while to figure out what was going on.”
Horlach is enrolled in the Erasmus student program in Gaziantep.
She was given the opportunity to escape the war in her own country and settle as a temporary refugee in a supposedly safer environment.
She never expected to get post-traumatic memories of Kharkiv, her hometown, in the city that had protected her for the past six months.
“I thought I was experiencing an air raid again,” Horlach said. “It gave me memories of home.”
Gaziantep, one of the largest cities in southern Turkey, has a population of nearly two million people, between one-quarter and one-third of whom are Syrian refugees.
Fifty-year-old Sawsan Dahman lives in the same building as al-Abrash. When it started to shake, she ran out into the street with her family of four children.
She desperately looked for safer shelter as the cold air, rain and snow beat down on her face.
Dahman said she immediately thought of the large mosque located in 100 Yil Park, a green area near the city center, where she found local Turkish people waiting to help.
She immediately got in touch with her Syrian contacts through various WhatsApp groups to inform them of the safe haven.
“Often, because of language barriers, Arabic speakers stay here in emergency situations,” Dahman said. “I wanted to fill that void.”
Chaos after the earthquake
In just a few hours, Dahman became a point of reference for the Syrian community in Gaziantep, as well as for women of any origin who found themselves alone.
A widow, Dahman already had to take care of her children alone on the way from her home in Damascus to Turkey.
But as she spoke from the communal prayer room in the early afternoon, a large aftershock rocked the mosque.
With horror in her eyes, Dahman grabbed her children – aged between 17 and 23 – as memories of the war in Syria began to overwhelm her.
Others were sent running in all directions by the immediate memory of the earlier earthquake.
The minaret shook, threatening to collapse on the crowd. A child was hit by a car, in the rain, and people gathered to help the girl.
Amid the desperation and bad weather, people found temporary communal shelters where they could, some wrapped in blankets inside makeshift tents on park benches. Others took refuge in cafes – the few that dared to open – sitting in circles around electric heaters.
Warming his hands around a heater, 24-year-old economics student Izzat Umman reflects on the shock of waking up to books falling on his head.
“I didn’t know what was happening, I just ran out into the street, seeing other people running,” he said. “We have never experienced anything like this here. One minute felt like 15.”
Gaziantep, which was already affected by unusually bad weather conditions, was not prepared for such an emergency, he added. “It came so unexpectedly that we are still in shock.”
As the day progressed, the aftershocks did not stop and came unexpectedly, leaving Gaziantep in constant fear of the next quake. The traumatic experience will resonate for many for a long time.
Many have now started fleeing the city in their cars or buses, while the airport is closed.
Walking around the ruins of buildings and streets he knew by heart, al-Abrash saw a picture that was bitterly familiar to him.
“We have already had to face traumatic experiences from the Syrian conflict. Now that we are a few kilometers from the border, it seems as if history has repeated itself. And we will have to face another trauma.”