A call to Jesuit Gerald Baumgartner, who is coordinating emergency aid for earthquake victims in Homs, Syria. 

How did you experience the earthquake? 

I woke up from it at night, the earth shook for about two to three minutes, it already felt threatening. Then we all ran into the street, just like the other people in Homs. But nothing was destroyed here. Nevertheless, people did not dare to go back into their houses for fear that the quake could be even stronger. Most people spent the night outside in sub-zero temperatures. Then came heavy rain the next day, there was a dead silence everywhere, it was already an apocalyptic situation. 

When did you start your aid? 

We quickly learned that the epicentre was in the north of the country, about 200 kilometres away from us, and how severe the damage was in Syria. Our first impulse was to go to Aleppo immediately and help with the search work there. But the idea that we would go there and just start digging was a bit naïve and also premature, and I am glad that I was able to restrain our youth leaders. After all, we were much more urgently needed here in Homs. 

In what way? 

Already on the second day after the earthquake, we received a call that two families who had fled Aleppo needed the most basic necessities: Blankets, mattresses, bread, which we then brought with our minibus. From then on, it didn't stop: more and more people came to our house who had fled the earthquake region, without identity cards, without money, without warm clothes. Some of them were standing in front of us in their pyjamas. Then it was clear to us: something huge is coming! 

What did that mean for you? 

My superiors were not in the house, so I decided that we would cook for twenty people. The next day there were 50, the third day 150, and today (16 February) there were 800 people. We cook in the small kitchenette, we eat outside, luckily it hasn't rained much in the last few days. And people are still arriving daily from Aleppo. We check at night how many new ones have arrived, so what quantities we have to cook the next day. In addition, our minibus is on the road around the clock, bringing relief supplies to the people: Clothes, hygiene articles, blankets, medicines. Many of the relief goods that are delivered to us are also passed on to other organisations such as the Red Cross or the Red Crescent. 

How willing are the people in Homs to help? 

Huge! People give everything they have: on the first day we were suffocating in mountains of clothes. The people here have nothing themselves after the years of war. Nevertheless, there is enormous solidarity. But that doesn't mean that it can't change. That's why we make sure that we also feed the needy locals. Of the 800 meals today, 600 went to refugees and 200 to the people who take them in. 

How do you actually manage that? 

50 to 100 volunteers support us day and night, many have taken leave for this. Students help us even though they should be preparing for their exams. I myself have not sat down for the last 10 days, I was on my feet every day from eight in the morning until two in the night, then sleep for six hours, then start all over again. 

Don't you easily lose track of things in such a chaotic situation? 

It's a challenge, but we already tried to organise our aid as strategically as possible after our first spontaneous impulse to help dig in Aleppo. We joined forces with the other Christian churches in Homs and founded a coordination group to offer help together and as systematically as possible. Our community has become a kind of hub for this. 

What does systematic mean in such a situation? 

We have put together assessment teams that determine the objective needs of the families and assign priorities. These are qualified staff with psychosocial training. Our goal is to provide emergency aid, i.e. clothing, hygiene articles, blankets, medicines, medical care and also food, as quickly as possible. The people should quickly be put in a position to look after themselves and cook where they are accommodated. We will certainly continue to distribute food parcels for a while for this purpose. After that, we want to look at what the refugees need in the longer term: Housing, rent support, education for the children, psychotherapeutic care. 

You will continue to coordinate that? 

Yes, the JRS asked me to do this because I was already organising the emergency aid. I will therefore hand over my tasks in youth work, continue the emergency aid for as long as necessary, and then develop the second phase of our aid for the people who will be in Homs for longer. 

Do you expect that the refugees will not be able to return soon? 

Yes, many will possibly stay in Homs for years. Either because their houses have been destroyed or because it is unclear whether they are still habitable. In Aleppo, teams of engineers are currently inspecting house after house to decide which ones people can move back into. As long as this is not clarified, the refugees will probably stay here. 

How are you feeling about all this? 

The last few days have been very draining for everyone in the team, and we have to remain mindful that we also give the helpers rest days. But at the same time, it is incredibly comforting and motivating to see how people get involved. Just one example: like every year, the 50 women of a prayer group collected money for a celebration on Valentine's Day, which is called the Feast of Love in Arabic. They collected 200,000 Lira, not 30 Euros. They gave us this money: this year they want to celebrate the Feast of Love in this way. That gives strength. 

Interview: Gerd Henghuber 

Jesuits ECE