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Earthquake forces Syrian refugee, who rebuilt her life in Turkey, to start over

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

When the earthquake that has now stolen more than 50,000 lives first hit in Turkey and Syria, we introduced you to Assalah Shikhani, a resident of Antakya in Turkey, a teacher, a mother, a Syrian refugee who fled war 12 years ago. She was searching for shelter with her family, her building damaged, her uncle's family buried under the rubble of his home. She didn't have time to think about anything but immediate safety for her daughters and finding her missing loved ones.

ASSALAH SHIKHANI: Antakya is a ghost city, ghost city - nothing there, nothing there, no life at all.

FADEL: It was so chaotic, she didn't realize she'd injured her leg. Only now is she taking stock of what she's been through and what she's lost. When we last spoke, we promised to check back in with her.

You hear me? It's Leila. How are you?

SHIKHANI: Yeah, I hear you very well. I'm fine. And you, Leila?

FADEL: I'm doing OK. The last time we spoke, you were searching for your uncle's family. You had your daughters, your parents. But you didn't know where they were. Did you find them?

SHIKHANI: Yeah. We took all of them under the ruins, all their bodies.

FADEL: So none of them survived?

SHIKHANI: All of them, no, none of them. None of them.

FADEL: How many people?

SHIKHANI: Khadija (ph), Verwal (ph), Dina (ph), Sammy (ph) - they are eight, eight people.

FADEL: Eight people. So you found them in Antakya?

SHIKHANI: Yes. We - all of them now under the ground. And we put them in their tombs. And this is why we decided to go out of Hatay.

FADEL: They left the Turkish province of Hatay, where her home in Antakya collapsed along with nearly every building in the city. She's staying with four other families, hundreds of miles away in the city of Bursa, in a house that belongs to a friend. But soon she'll head back closer to Antakya, to the city of Reyhanli, where she taught at a school run by the nonprofit Karam Foundation for Syrian refugees. That foundation found her a home.

FADEL: I will leave my dad and mom here just to check the situation there. My daughters, I don't want to leave them because we live together or die together. We don't know what will happen. So inshallah, I will take my daughters to stay in Reyhanli, especially that, you know, Ramadan comes close. We need to stop and settle down a little bit.

FADEL: Before, when we spoke, you didn't have anything from your house. You were in your pajamas. You didn't even have your hijab. Were you able to get anything from your belongings from the house?

SHIKHANI: You know, the first thing that I took out from my home, my brother prosthesis. My brother is shaheed. And I keep his prosthesis because he has an amputee before he's dying.

FADEL: Oh.

SHIKHANI: And I took my brother prosthesis with me to keep it with me just to feel that I have something...

FADEL: A piece of him.

SHIKHANI: ...From Syria. Yeah, a piece of him.

FADEL: She calls her brother a shaheed, a martyr. What she took from the house was a prosthetic leg that he wore before he was killed in the civil war in Syria.

How was he killed?

SHIKHANI: In the battle, in fighting the revolution, by airplane, Russian airplanes, bomb, and the youngest one in the prison.

FADEL: Wow. So much loss.

SHIKHANI: Yes. Yes.

FADEL: What else did you take from the house?

SHIKHANI: I'm not able to take everything because it's a little bit risky. I'm trying to work slowly, slowly. I'm trying to took the symbol and, you know, easy things.

FADEL: Oh, so you went inside?

SHIKHANI: Yes.

FADEL: It was dangerous. So you went inside before it collapsed?

SHIKHANI: Yes. Yes, I was inside. I must to go inside. I need. I have to. I have to.

FADEL: Now, your daughters, Lillian (ph) and Sousen (ph), How are they doing? One is 5 years old, and one is 14?

SHIKHANI: Yes, 14, Sousen. And Lillian, she is 5 1/2. They are fine. They are fine. Just my oldest daughter, she keeps alone. So I want her to - back to the life. So I need to settle down our life again, inshallah.

FADEL: Yeah. You said she sits alone?

SHIKHANI: Yeah, she keeps silent and just watching videos. I'm trying to make her far from YouTube, from all the past. And especially, she lost her private teacher. She was with her before the day. Every day, she came to stay with her because I'm working, you know? In Antakya, I'm going to Reyhanli every day. So this teacher was very close to her, more than me. So she lost her. And she needs time.

FADEL: Is she watching videos of the earthquake?

SHIKHANI: Yes, of earthquake and our home, her teacher's schools, her friends, like this.

FADEL: Are all of her friends safe?

SHIKHANI: Not all of them. You know, all Antakya, every family lost some people...

FADEL: Yeah.

SHIKHANI: ...From their families.

FADEL: How many people total did you lose in the earthquake that you knew? I know your uncle's family, you said, was eight people.

SHIKHANI: Yes, I have my cousin. I have my friends, four. I have my neighbors. I lost Karam house Antakya students, 10 students from Antakya. They are Karam house students. They are my soul.

FADEL: I'm sorry.

SHIKHANI: We lost them, but we didn't lose their faces and their actions and all of the things they shared with us.

FADEL: Now that you've buried your family and your daughters are safe and you are safe and you're getting your leg treated, what are you thinking about for your future? What are your biggest concerns about the future?

SHIKHANI: The first thing that I have, a pain in my soul. I have pain physically. But I have pain - the biggest pain, that I don't belong to here. Where is my belonging, for where, for whom, for what? For me, I don't think about the future at all, just I need to settle down present. We don't know our present, our future. After 10 and 12 years ago in Turkey, a little bit, I have a new belonging. But now, I lost belonging. Belonging is only empathy, humanity, someone who can hug us, someone who welcome us. I look at the faces, the streets. All of these things, it doesn't belong to me. And I don't belong to here.

FADEL: In Bursa?

SHIKHANI: I know the first days, it will not be easy for us. But I will keep trying and struggling in the life.

FADEL: Assalah Shikhani joining me from Bursa, Turkey. Thank you so much, Assalah.

SHIKHANI: You're welcome. And thank you for you.

(SOUNDBITE OF HIKARU SHIROSU'S "WALTZ NO. 1, COLLAPSE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.