By Almagul Serikbayeva
In the wake of early February’s earthquake along the Turkish and Syrian border, the Turkish diaspora of immigrants in Chicago has packed and shipped more than 2,500 boxes of donations full of winter clothing, sleeping bags, hand warmers, diapers, baby food, hygiene products and other necessities, to their homeland through the Turkish American Cultural Alliance (TACA) since the first day of the disaster.
As the death toll from the earthquake surpassed 50,000, an estimated 13.5 million people have been displaced and an estimated 35% of the Turkish economy was wrecked. These numbers are only increasing, said Vildan Gorener, president of the Turkish American Cultural Alliance.
Imagine an earthquake “with the force of 130 atomic bombs,” she said, describing the aftermath. The impact devastated seven provinces in Turkey and northern areas of Syria. “This is larger than many countries in Europe, larger than Portugal and even Hungary.”
Hundreds in Chicago are reaching out to donation centers across the city, said TACA board member Suzan Ozturk-Taylor. According to her, around 50 to 60 people come to volunteer each day at TACA. Many of them come from different backgrounds with different reasons to help.
Maya Skintges, 39, is originally from Bosnia and Herzegovina, a country northwest of Turkey. She first heard about the donations drive from her mother, who saw the news on TV.
“I came here as a refugee in 1997, lost everything in the war. So I know when people are in need,” she said.
Eugene Batkhuyag, ethnically Mongolian, volunteered because he felt a cultural closeness to the Turkish people. But also on a day off, he wanted to be useful “instead of doing something like watching a movie.”
“I hope I’m being a help here, but I don’t know,” he said. “I can’t donate a lot of money, so another way to donate is my time.”
Gorener described local communities as extremely supportive of TACA’s calls for help and a remarkable example of human solidarity.
“Now Chicago feels more like home to me,” Gorener said.
Right after the earthquake, Northwestern University’s Turkish Student Association started fundraising campaigns. By offering donuts to anyone who donated over $5, the students collected more than $8,000. The real scale of destruction, however, is far greater than anyone can comprehend, said Yagmur Dora Aytemiz, a computer science major at the McCormick School of Engineering.
“Imagine if every building from Philadelphia to Boston collapsed,” she said. “The amount of funds to fix that problem would be much more than $8,000.”
Despite the general sense of concern and empathetic response to the earthquake, some people appear unaware of the situation or mistake it for something very casual because it’s in the Middle East, Aytemiz said.
She and other Turkish students said they feel selfish doing homework instead of fundraising, but some professors see it as if they’re benefiting from the situation, she added.
“When I asked for an extension from the purpose, the only thing the professor said was, ‘You can already submit a day late with a 10% penalty,’” Aytemiz said, explaining that she was busy selling donuts for donations. “The professor didn’t even ask me if I was OK.”
At least six people died and about 300 were injured, 18 critically, after major aftershocks struck southern Turkey on Feb. 27. The United States Geological Survey (USGS) reported the quake as being of magnitude 6.3 magnitude.
Meanwhile, Syria, which had already been facing the largest refugee crisis in the world with over 15 million in need of humanitarian aid, according to the International Rescue Committee, has been struggling with more destruction and a growing number of victims. Earlier the United Nations reported a death toll of about 6,000 for all of Syria, including 4,400 in the rebel-held northwest. The true number of victims, however, may be higher because most of the areas have not yet been scanned, independent commentator Hadi Nasrallah noted, referencing the U.N. reports.
“Aleppo was already been facing a lot of devastation before,” he said. “There was the Battle of Aleppo, the city was still recovering until COVID-19 happened, and the earthquake made things much worse, buildings are still falling.”
As soon as the earthquake struck, the internet became a forum for concerns about the unequal media coverage of Syria compared with Turkey. Nasrallah, 28, said the reason is a lack of official international reports because some organizations are unable to remain neutral.
“That made a lot of media coverage be like, OK, let’s not get influenced, just focus on Turkey, put Syria in the middle of the coverage,” he said.
The responsibility for the insufficient response to the earthquake in Syria partially lies in 2004 sanctions imposed on Syria by the United States, Nasrallah said.
The first 24 hours were crucial, and there should have been at least more effort to send out groups of volunteers, tools and machines to dig people out, he said. The Syrian government could have a firmer response, he added.
“There should have been more aid, not just clothes,” he said. “OK, that’s helping the people who survived. What about the thousands of people under the rubble? What about the homeless? What about people who are permanently injured? We’re just not gonna do anything to them?”
The Syrian Community Network (SCN) in Chicago is not currently accepting donations but instead is referring people to external organizations that do on-the-ground work.
“Within the city, we have held community gatherings for those affected by the earthquake,” said August DeVore Welles, a volunteer and outreach coordinator at SCN. “We are checking in on all of our clients regularly to provide support emotionally, as well as extra services to those who need it.”
Despite the donations flowing to Turkey, Nasrallah said he believes the aid is unlikely to reach Syria, since the country can only be entered with permission from the Syrian government – and through the Turkish border – where the controlling military won’t allow anyone else to enter except those from the United Nations, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Egypt.
On Feb. 13, the Syrian government allowed crossing points to open at Bab Al-Salam and Al Ra’ee from Turkey to northwest Syria for three months to deliver humanitarian aid. The decision was welcomed by U.N. chief António Guterres, who said it “will allow more aid to go in, faster.”
A few days before that, the U.S. Department of the Treasury released a statement authorizing for 180 days all transactions related to earthquake relief that would be otherwise prohibited by sanctions involving Syria. However, Nasrallah said there’s no going forward with Syria when it comes to rebuilding unless the sanctions are lifted.
“I think something’s going to change in the future, but, unfortunately, it’s going to be worse,” he said.
Donors can help Turkey through the Turkish American Culture Alliance website, https://www.tacaonline.org/, or social media https://www.instagram.com/taca_chicago/.
Donors can help Syria through the Red Cross website, https://donate.redcross.org.uk/appeal/syria-crisis-appeal?fbclid=PAAabZ_iEhCIq5ATMgSteSkqRlnpkJnlb_VZ43YdPH0fElBNX7IcqsHHYe5kI.
Almagul Serikbayeva is a social justice graduate student at Medill. You can follow her on Instagram at @imstillalma.