Content Warning: Death and Disaster
By Bilge Güven, Staff Writer
On February 6, 2023, two earthquakes of 7.8 and 7.5 magnitude shook southeastern Türkiye and northwestern Syria. As of February 21, the death toll is 47 000. Elif Akyıldırım, a third year mechanical engineering student from Istanbul, Türkiye, said that this number will exponentially grow, “We are expecting the death toll to reach 100 000. More than 13 million people were affected. We all have friends, family who lost their lives. This tragedy has no comparison, it’s purely devastating.”
Rooj Ali, a first year student at Trinity College, is originally from Latakia, Syria, which was affected by the quake. “My grandmother and uncle were able to make it out of the
impacted region, but there’s likely no way to return now as their building is close to collapsing. Friends and family members have passed away, and there’s many others we’ve heard no word from,” Rooj said.
Elif added that the earthquake injured thousands in addition to the deaths and caused widespread destruction, “The quakes and aftershocks toppled buildings and sent rescuers scrambling through the rubble to find survivors.”
Rooj drew attention to the fact that the 12-year civil war in Syria has made humanitarian aid significantly more difficult to access than other affected areas, “This only worsens the crisis as Syrians face a harsh winter with little support. The people in Syria have faced so much horror as is, and this has only deepened the suffering of those in the region.” On February 19, as Syria’s earthquake wound still bled, an Israeli airstrike killed 15 people, including civilians in the capital city of Damascus.
“Corruption and misrule caused thousands to die,” Elif said. Geoscientists in Türkiye have been warning of the high chance of earthquakes in the region for years. Türkiye is situated on top of three massive fault lines.
Search and rescue teams did not reach certain areas until 48 hours after the earthquake hit. People stuck under the rubble froze to death. It wasn’t Mother Nature who killed them, it was the underpreparedness of the authorities. It was the contractors who cheaped out on materials. It was the government who didn’t regulate building codes. This is demonstrated by the fact that 60% of the collapsed buildings were newly constructed. This was murder by man, not by a natural disaster.
A video from the city of Adıyaman shows a mother crying out, “My daughter was alive yesterday! My baby died from the rain, she died from the cold! Why didn’t you come yesterday?”
“People are under rubble right now, 36 thousand already dead, as of February 13. Their lives will never be the same. Kids lost their parents, people lost their family and loved ones. Who can compensate for this loss?” Elif asked.
Elif talked about the disappointment that the Turkish community has faced in light of UofT’s response. “We expected our university to express support more overtly. As Turkish students, we did not receive any kind of support from any UofT-affiliated organisations, or UofT itself. We had to beg everyone to share what is happening in Türkiye and Syria. We sent countless emails and tried to reach out to executives. Some of them simply ignored us, some made it harder for us to do bake sales and donations. When it comes to the Middle East, it’s nobody’s business, unfortunately.”
This is an emotion widely shared by Middle Eastern people living in Canada. An Iranian student at UofT, who asked to remain anonymous, said, “This is one of the main reasons why Canada has never felt like home to me. The lack of care for lives and matters that aren’t their own, the existence of such an individualistic culture… It just will never feel right.”
“It’s so easy to disassociate from catastrophes and conflicts outside of the western sphere of influence,” Rooj said. She talked appreciatively of the people who do care, “Seeing engagement with the news and continuous compassion from my community here has been positive to see. I only hope that those concerns for refugees and affected peoples can be maintained past the initial shock.”
She pointed out that the death toll thus far is almost enough to fill the entirety of the Rogers Centre, not counting the thousands that are injured. “Thousands have been displaced and urgently need aid and assistance.”
Elif and her friend Sude Uzal have been organising donation drives to send supplies to Türkiye with the aid of the Turkish consulate. The University of Toronto Turkish Students Association (TSA) has been raising funds from bake sales.
Elif said, “People can help in many ways. You can help by simply sharing the earthquake disaster on social media and helping victims receive publicity. Unfortunately, we don’t receive as much publicity as the United States or Europe, so we need to put in extra effort. You don’t have to be Turkish or Syrian to be a human.”
“We need people to donate to trusted NGOs in order to send aid and support to civilians. If not by donating, raising awareness is integral so that the global community can take action and send support to those in need. This can’t become another crisis that comes and goes in the eyes of people. The effects of the earthquake and ongoing crisis in those regions is not only limited to those on the ground, but also us, the family, friends, and people from these countries. We feel the pain as we witness the horrific aftermaths of these events, and we grieve the loss of life and wellness from the same places we call home,” Rooj said.
She also talked about survivor’s guilt, “I ask how it’s fair that some of us can live and prosper away from home while others are subjected to that kind of suffering. I’m pained that my privileges and rights as a Canadian Citizen can’t be extended to the people back home. I wish I could be with my family back home as they pick up the broken pieces of their lives and grieve the loss of loved ones.”
Elif, whose home is Istanbul, expressed her deep sorrow. “We have friends who lost their homes in Türkiye. It’s an absolute nightmare, and what frustrates me the most is that nobody cares. Who will be held accountable for this? We want the one who gave permission for the construction, the architect, the engineer, the contractor, all of them to be prosecuted.”
Rooj then talked about the solidarity that’s found in disastrous times, “There’s a lot of sorrow that is shared amongst the global community, and I’m glad to see that in times like these we can recognize in one another the similar lived experiences we have, and in doing so show compassion and support.”
“We want justice, and yet we need help and empathy.”, Elif added.
On February 20, 2023, yet another earthquake of 6.4 magnitude and an aftershock of 5.8 hit the already devastated city of Hatay in the same region. Buildings labelled as minimally damaged by governmental authorities collapsed, leaving people under rubble once more. The extent of the added damages are unknown.
For people who want to help, Elif gave the following resources:
They can make donations to Turkish NGOs like AHBAP (https://ahbap.org/disasters-turkey). There are also NGOs that match the donations (eg. Canadian Red Cross Society).
They can donate winter clothes (with tags on, unused), tents, sleeping bags, hygiene products, and portable chargers to the following locations: 325/A Flint Road, North York ON M3J 2J2, or 3063 Universal Dr, Mississauga ON L4X 2E2
Volunteers can reach out to families and students that were affected by the earthquake (we, Turkish students at UofT, can help as a mediator between the two parties) and offer help. Contacting families one-on-one is a good idea if you want to do more than just send clothes. You can be the hope to a family that lost everything in the earthquake disaster.