Your Silence Is Loud: Outcry Against UofT’s Response to Devastating Earthquakes in Türkiye and Syria

By Bilge Güven, Staff Writer

A banner that reads “Your Silence Is Loud” and images from the earthquake area in front of Simcoe Hall as part of the February 16 Silent Protest.

Photo source: Bilge Güven, Staff Writer

Over 50,000 people dead. 20 million people in Türkiye and 8.8 million people in Syria affected. Almost 2 million people in temporary shelters. Their lives will never be the same.

Massive earthquakes of 7.8 and 7.5 magnitudes wrecked southeastern Türkiye and northwestern Syria on February 6, 2023. On February 20th, as people continued to die under the rubble, freeze to death in homelessness, and try to mourn their loved ones in a land engulfed by the smell of corpses, another earthquake of 6.4 magnitude hit Hatay, one of the most affected cities.

On February 16, 2023, 10 days after the disaster, UofT students came together to protest their university’s silence. Organized by Turkish and Syrian students, the silent protest aimed to bring attention to the lack of support their communities faced from UofT. Over 100 students met in front of the statue in Queens Park, walked on St. George, briefly stopped at Sidney Smith and ended the march in front of Simcoe Hall, where President Meric Gertler sits in office.

A UTSG student double majoring in computer science and mathematics who asked to remain anonymous was one of the organizers. “UofT’s response has been very disappointing,” he said. “On the public façade of the institution, ingenuine acknowledgements were followed by generic support resources. The response was a decentralized non-existence. Some colleges emailed. Some faculty helped. Some of the staff was very involved in providing resources to student initiatives. Yet, others knew so little of what was going on.” He said that the performative nature of UofT’s reaction is what caused this inconsistency in the community: “UofT failed in providing a central message and acknowledgement to the faculty and students.”

Individual students organized help efforts, but they felt unsupported by the university. The Arts & Science student said, “After the earthquake, as the initial paralysis passed, students from Türkiye, Syria, and those who were aware of the situation’s severity started gathering to help the victims in the affected regions. In different forms, students tried to, and still are, doing their best to help: Donation campaigns, bake sales, safe-space initiatives, gatherings for mental support… These efforts could have been multiplied tenfold with an easy decision from the institution. We were constantly reminded of this as we worked with students, friends from the UofT community who were directly affected. While trying to support each other, we kept thinking about the ones we must have missed, the ones we were unable to reach out to—students and faculty who might be feeling isolated during these tough times.”

He describes: “We decided to hold a protest, calling for UofT to break its silence, to support its very own student body in these efforts. This is a matter that can be resolved internally, within the larger UofT community. We expect understanding, urgency and action. A single email we didn’t receive actually matters.”

“This is not the first time. In the past, there have been moments when a similar silence was present during another situation of distress,” he added, referencing the deadly October 2022 floods in Pakistan. “There is an unfortunate systematic non-response to the geographies towards which the institution feels distant. We want to change that.”

The UofT student then spoke to their long term goals: “We want to initiate a conversation with the university to establish ways to help current students whose studies have been affected, as well as prospective UofT students whose admissions process will be influenced by the catastrophe. We want students to never again be fated to face this non-response in times of crises. The university is supposed to be a home for students, especially for international students, a home away from home.”

He continues by indicating that after almost a month after the earthquake, “the grassroots efforts are still continuing. The safe space initiative will continue under the name of ‘Solidarity Space’ at the Multi-Faith Centre with Turkish and Arabic speaking volunteers. There are more bake sales arranged for the future to raise donations for direct support to the region. But we need the university’s support. Your support.”

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