New York City Student Loses His Little Nieces to Earthquake in Syria

Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast/Courtesy Hussein Akoush/Reuters
Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast/Courtesy Hussein Akoush/Reuters

Hussein Akoush, a 28-year-old college student in New York City, was sent into a “panic” when a friend in Syria texted him on Monday and told him that an earthquake had caused “massive destruction” to his hometown of Al-Atarib in northwestern Aleppo.

“I saw the magnitude of the earthquake was 7.8. At this point, I realized it was huge,” Akoush, who grew up in Syria and moved to Turkey in 2016, told The Daily Beast. Immediately, he said, “I had to check in on my family in Syria. So I sent messages to all my sisters and my brother, but none of them received my messages.”

Meanwhile, news of the unimaginable destruction had kept rolling in. The two earthquakes had hit Turkey and Syria—both countries Akoush has called home—around 4 a.m. local time on Monday. By Tuesday evening, the death toll had jumped to almost 8,000. With thousands of buildings razed to the ground, and rescue efforts to dig up people buried in the rubble still underway, that number is expected to rise significantly.

Akoush began hearing back from his family members in Syria, who had lost access to the internet, throughout the day on Monday.

“My uncle said to me, ‘don’t worry, we’re fine, your mother and your sister are well,” he said. “‘Your brother’s building collapsed but we managed to take him out of the ruins. But we know nothing about his wife and two daughters.’”

The college student, who moved to the U.S. in 2021 to study neuroscience at Columbia University, could tell something was wrong—even though he was thousands of miles away. Eventually, his fears were confirmed.

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“They managed to take my brother out alive. They took him to the hospital,” he told The Daily Beast. But when his nieces, six-year-old Sedra, five-year-old Maria, and their mother Fatima were pulled from the rubble, “they were already dead.”

“So, my brother lost his wife and his two daughters,” Akoush said, adding that his brother is in good condition, despite a broken arm that required surgery. “It was a terrible night… I was not able to sleep.”

Akoush has still not had a chance to speak with his brother directly about what happened. His entire family, he said, is now staying at his grandparent’s place, because they live in a ground floor apartment. It’s the safest option for them, he explained, because “there’s aftershocks. So they’re staying at my grandmother’s place, which is on a ground floor.”

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For families like Akoush’s, the horror of the earthquake piles on to an already grim list of daily struggles in Syria.

“It’s an ironic tragedy. As if the bombings and suffering of the people were not enough to be struck by a natural disaster. People are already struggling. Even the buildings are not strong enough to bear natural disasters. Those towns and cities have already been bombed a lot, that bombing heavily damaged the structure of the building,” he told The Daily Beast. “It’s horrible.”

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