Seven weeks after a devastating earthquake hit Syria and Turkey, a Minneapolis-based nonprofit is shifting from providing crisis services to long-term support for Syrian families whose homes were reduced to rubble.
Questscope, a subsidiary of Minneapolis-based Alight — formerly known as the American Refugee Committee — is providing food, supplies and mental health services for displaced families, and helping assess damage in Syrian villages as they begin to rebuild. The magnitude 7.8 earthquake killed more than 50,000 people in the two countries on Feb. 6 and left hundreds of thousands of people homeless.
"It was shocking," said CEO Muthanna Khriesat, who was in Aleppo, Syria, at the end of February. "It was not easy."
Questscope, which was founded in 1988, has about 70 employees worldwide with programs in Syria, Jordan and Germany that help about 9,000 people a year. Khriesat, who lives in Woodbury and splits his time working in Jordan and Minnesota, has been with Questscope for 23 years and has led the organization for about a year.
The Jordanian computer science expert dreamed of becoming "the Bill Gates of the Arab world," Khriesat said, until he started volunteering with Questscope and realized how he could make a difference for less fortunate youth.
"We're trying to change that sadness for the present [into] hope for the future," he said.
In February, Khriesat helped convert Aleppo schools into temporary shelters. Four or five families were crammed into each classroom, sleeping on thin mattresses without access to showers, electricity or heat.
"When you are in a certain crisis like this, you need your dignity," he said. "Simple things that we're blessed with ... they could not find."
Hundreds of employees who work for Questscope and partner Syrian organizations renovated bathrooms and provided blankets, hot meals, hygiene kits and solar-powered lamps to about 200 families. The organizations have also provided counseling and plan to set up trailers to house families after the shelters close.
Questscope, whose motto is "Putting the Last, First," has used its local connections to assist villages overlooked by other humanitarian organizations.
"We were able to reach these people in these villages that no one served," Khriesat said. "All of our programs and solutions came from the people and from the community. We believe they know their resources, they know their weaknesses."
Since the disaster, Alight and Questscope have raised about $300,000 for earthquake relief, but more is needed, Khriesat said — especially in war-torn Syria, which has received fewer resources than Turkey. He spoke Monday from Jordan about what is needed next. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: It's been almost two months since the earthquake. What do you want people to know about the rebuilding effort and why support will be needed long into the future?
A: Minnesotans helped us to do the first response, which was great. I think moving forward, we have to start thinking about what we have to provide for these families so they can settle back to their houses or rebuild their houses. I don't think these shelters can last long and they cannot live the rest of their lives in these shelters.
Q: How will donations help the recovery effort and the Syrian families you're working with?
A: They did not choose the situation that they are in. These small kids suffered from trauma, and one of the major things for healing them is for them to feel safe. And in the shelters, they don't feel safe. We have to collaborate together to help them.
Q: Syria received little international humanitarian aid. Why is that, and has the civil war affected Questscope's aid work?
A: Yes, this is the difference between Turkey and Syria. A response for a disaster without politics is different than a response to a disaster with politics. We're facing a lot of obstacles. But we're trying to do the best we can with the situation.
Q: What gives you hope for the families you've served in Aleppo who face a long road of recovery?
A: If we don't give up, I think we are the hope. How easily their life was destroyed in one minute, and think about how many years it will need to be to rebuild. I believe now, hope is the only thing we don't want to lose. We have to look for a better future.