Former Limerick parish priest leading earthquake mission in Syria

Fr Tony O'Riordan in one of the areas of Aleppo that was hit by the earthquakes.

FORMER Moyross parish priest Fr Tony O’Riordan has given a shocking first-hand account of the death and destruction caused by the earthquakes in Syria, and called for cash donations to help people worst hit by the disaster.

Fr O’Riordan, who is leading the Jesuit Order’s response to the crisis in Aleppo, described seeing “a chilling image of a large articulated truck with bodies in white body bags”.

“A heartbroken family were there, seeking to track a loved one. Such stories are common here.”

During a visit to one of 126 emergency shelters in Aleppo, Fr O’Riordan said he spoke to a man who was talking to his brother and family members for over 12 hours as they lay  trapped in the rubble but, “unfortunately that family perished”.

“Listening to survivors, it is hard to take in the level of terror they have lived through during the earthquakes. They are in deep shock and their sense of safety and security has collapsed along with many of the buildings.”

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Despite the crisis, healing is already taking place in the safe zones where counselling is being offered to the families of the dead and injured, which is paid for by Jesuit earthquake appeal fund.

“We have rolled this out to about 700 people already and they are reporting significant improvement in their sense of wellbeing. It is not a high cost intervention but it is time consuming, so cash is the best way to help,” said Fr O’Riordan.

Along with the obvious dangers of further tremors and unsafe buildings, the crisis is worsened by the harsh sub-zero winter temperatures and electricity blackouts.

As country director of the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS), Fr O’Riordan is also tasked with overseeing a team of 300 providing health, education, protection and peace building services to people caught up in the Syrian civil war.

“I’m fortunate in that the greatest fear for me is that I might get frostbite because of the cold at night time,” he said.

“It’s sub-zero and I’m sleeping in a room that doesn’t have any heating but at least I have a bed and blankets. It was minus 4 degrees Celsius last night. Maybe a hot water bottle would help, but there isn’t any electricity to heat the water.”

“It is heartbreaking but so encouraging to see Syrian people – who have been pounded by war, hunger, crippling poverty, and now hit by this – still standing with each other and doing what they can.

Fr O’Riordan is no stranger to challenging environments, having previously highlighted the activities of murderous drug gangs in Moyross where he served for six years. He has also survived an attack by a 2,000-strong mob on a remote refugee camp in South Sudan in 2018.

He feels lucky that when the earthquake hit Aleppo, he was 400km outside the city – although the tremor that woke him at 4.30am felt like “a train slowly shuddering towards him”.

“It was a very different experience for people closer to the epicentre. They thought they were going to die because of the shaking, the noise of the ground moving, glass breaking, buildings creaking and rubble falling.

“It was only a few seconds, but it was the most terrifying few seconds of their lives,” he said.

Cash donations for the Jesuits Syria Earthquake Appeal can be made online at or by contacting 01-836-6509.

Fr Tony O’Riordan briefing one of the Jesuit earthquake appeal teams.