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Fleeing war, Syrians lose adopted homes in Turkey quake

Dozens of families that fled Syria's civil war are taking shelter from Turkey's earthquake in Diyarbakir's ancient mosque
— Diyarbakir (Turkey) (AFP)

Ridwan Gurre had the instincts to hide from roaring warplanes when he lived in Syria during its civil war.

But little prepared him for the rumble of the 7.8-magnitude quake that devastated his adopted home in Turkey on Monday.

The 42-year old joined nearly four million Syrians when he moved his family for the relative safety of southeastern Turkey -- a region that has suffered its own share of violence between militants and government forces.

He spent seven years building a new home in the multi-ethnic city of Diyarbakir. His life was getting back on track.

Now it is gone.

Gurre was forced to spend the past two nights with his wife and two sons on the turquoise carpet of the city's ancient Grand Mosque.

The massive worship house was rebuilt from another huge quake nearly a millennium ago but survived this one unscathed. Gurre felt safe for the moment but uncertain about what happens next.

"When we were in a war, we knew that when the planes flew overhead, it was time to take shelter," Gurre remarked.

Hundreds of others slept with their heads perched on their belongings or walked around covered in blankets as Gurre contemplated his fate.

Women breastfed their newborns while cheerful children -- blissfully unaware of the tragedy unfolding around them -- played in busy corners.

"When the earthquake came at such an unexpected hour, we didn't know what would happen next," Gurre said.

- Worries for Aleppo -

The pre-dawn jolt killed thousands of people in their sleep and left untold more trapped under slabs of concrete in the freezing cold.

Others died in aftershocks that have been rolling across Turkey and parts of neighbouring Syria day and night.

Refugees who left their lives behind in Syria lost the ones they built in Turkey in Monday's quake

The death toll in both countries has been rising by the hundreds with every hour and surpassed 11,200 on Wednesday afternoon.

Aleppo native Mercan al Ahmad recalled life in Syria where she struggled to find food. Now she can barely sleep again.

"We escaped death in Syria, and now we were struck by an earthquake in Turkey," said the 17-year-old.

"We can't sleep. We are scared. We live in fear of another strong aftershock."

She spends the restless nights and days worrying about her future and her relatives back in Aleppo -- one of the provinces suffering extensive damage in Syria.

"We have relatives in Aleppo. There are many casualties, many houses collapsed," she said. "We heard some of them belong to our relatives."

Ihlas Mohammed said she heard similar news about her loved ones in a village between Aleppo and Idlib.

"We can't get much news about them," she said. "There was a war, we escaped, and now this (quake) happened. We have nothing," she said.

- 'We are all victims' -

The Turkish families taking shelter alongside the Syrian ones pointed out the futility of trying to stir up ethnic and cultural divisions in this restless part of the world.

Turkish families sleep alongside Syrian ones on the turquoise carpet of Diyarbakir's Grand Mosque

Turkey became home to the world's largest refugee population after an agreement aimed at stemming Europe's migrant crisis in 2015-16.

But anti-migrant sentiments in Turkey have been rising during a dire economic crisis that has wiped out people's savings and left millions struggling to pay their food and utility bills.

Politicians of all stripes are promising to start sending the Syrians back home in the runup to Turkey's May 14 elections.

Turkish mother Aydegul Bitgin said everyone at the mosque was the same.

"We are here with Syrian refugees, we are all victims," the 37-year-old said.

"There's nothing that we don't need, baby food, wet wipes, diapers. We left our home nothing."

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