Content warning: discussion of Turkey-Syria earthquakes, mentions of death, mourning
On February 6, 2023, an earthquake of magnitude 7.8 struck southeastern Turkey, followed by an earthquake of magnitude 7.5 a few hours after. By February 20, the death toll has reached at least 48 thousand, including the fatalities in Syria. Described as the worst disaster in a century by many, the Turkish and Syrian communities worldwide, including those at UBCO, had one of the toughest weeks of their lives.
As someone whose family is from southeastern Turkey, I was among those living in shock at what happened and felt the urge to share how students like us feel when their home countries are going through tragedies.
What follows are my personal experiences during the first week of the earthquake. Though it is certainly not representative of anyone else, I hope that other students may reach a better understanding of what it feels like to have to carry on while your home is falling apart.
You first hear the news while scrolling on Instagram, passing the time on a Sunday night before you sleep. A plain and simple text explains what happened. No images. With no numbers or further explanation, you think this must be something that didn't affect many. You're proven wrong quickly; what follows are some of the most emotionally tumultuous days you've ever experienced.
You text your family; it's 5 a.m. there. Is my mum even up? She's far enough from the earthquake zone; she's probably fine. Probably. She calls you twenty minutes later and tells you she's fine, that the cat felt the tremor and woke her up.That our close relatives are fine. We can't get in touch with the rest. Everyone's panicking. You feel like your throat's closing up. This wasn't small, not at all. You can't talk for long. Your mum has to call the rest of your relatives, who live in a city near the epicentre, to see if they're okay. You have a class at 9 a.m. AND a midterm soon. You can’t just stay up and watch the news. Or maybe you should? You have no idea what to do; what does one even do when they’re so far away?
There is one constant that week, and it's the news.
You check it constantly, watching helplessly as they talk about the sheer scale of the earthquake. Images and videos haven't even surfaced yet, and you already feel a wave of numbness wash over you. This is a tragedy on a scale you cannot even process. You hug your sibling, not being able even to finish imagining what it would have felt like to lose them — a feeling many people didn’t have the luxury of merely imagining that week because they experienced it. You wake up the next morning, the initial energy wearing off quickly as you remember what happened last night. The death toll starts to roll in, rising every hour you refresh the page.
You start the week thinking in the back of your mind of those in your home country who didn't make it to see a new day.
You don't listen to music and make your way down to campus silently. People greet each other in class and talk about their weekend, while you're glued to your phone, waiting to see what's being done. Are the emergency teams arriving? The roads split apart from the impact. How are they going to reach? What can I do? What can I do? Your thoughts are clouded, as you try to follow your lecture.
You feel guilty all week, especially in the warm classroom, with your water bottle by your side. At the same time, others wait under the rubble, in the darkness, without anything.
You’re imagining the babies crying out to their mothers, and you’re trying to understand how the professor got to the result on the board, all at once.
What are you even doing? You should be back home — digging with your hands if you need to — in order to help people. There's no escaping the guilt.
Your friends ask you how you are, how your family is. You say, “They're alive and I'm alive. They're not okay, and they won't be for a long time.” Can anyone even understand what you're going through? Logically, you know that your friends from all sorts of backgrounds have, unfortunately, experienced tragedies in their home countries too. But they're okay now, while you hold back tears every time a new post from the news agencies back home pops up on your feed. You sit in the library between classes, watching the news intently, while people joke and catch up around you. What can they do? They don't know anyone even remotely close to the people affected. They can only do so much.
The reporter shows the collapsed buildings on the exact street your aunts lived in. You remember how you'd complain as you walked up the hill, because you had to bring the lahmacun, freshly baked in the baker's oven, during Ramadan. You'd gossip with your aunt about her neighbours, next to the exact building that the reporters show the rubble of. Will things ever be the same?
You constantly call your parents to see how they are, if their relatives and friends are okay.
“As far as we know, they're okay,” your mum says. “But we don't expect to finish this week without hearing of some losses; we'll lose loved ones.”
And we do. Four days later, your aunt tells the family group chat that they've lost hope for the husband and children of one of your mum's cousins. Your dad has lost his friend and his whole family under the rubble. They remain strong, but you know they've been crying too.
It's a rollercoaster of emotions with mostly pits, but there are moments when the light comes from the dark too. The moment the Turkish Student Association starts a fundraiser, you see your friends share it on their stories without you even asking them to.
Sometimes your patience wears thin, and you can't act like everything's normal. But your friends understand, and they show you so much love and support that you feel guilty again for having so much, while people back home have so little.
Nevertheless, you see so much more good in the world. Though the news brings a lot of grief, it brings hope too.
You see first-response teams from all over the world drop everything, and fly in to help people. While many pass, just as many are saved from the rubble. A lady rescued from the rubble prays for the rescuers' good fortune, and tells them that they have to come over for çay once she’s out again. A man smiles and talks about his favourite football team, as the rescuers carefully pull him from the rubble. The rescuers talk to the children ever so softly, giving them water slowly with a bottle cap so that their bodies don't go into shock. Cats are rescued from the rubble, the rescuers petting them with a gentleness no one would expect from someone who has been working nonstop for days. People gather millions to donate to charities that can help out.While there's much to be angry about, you can't help but tear up at the sudden unity of people who want to help your country.
Over the next few days though, things get worse. The death toll rises, and you hear voice notes from your aunt telling you how cold it is in the tent, where she has been staying with her family for the last few days, and how they fear they'll get pneumonia. The hospitals aren't seeing anyone. They only have capacity for those from the rubble, she says.
You write your heartfelt words to tell her you're thinking of her, but you write these words from your warm room, on top of your comfortable bed. How can you ever know what she's going through?
Maybe if you don't wear your coat when you go outside, you can make up for your privilege; all your logic goes out the window. Your years of learning rational decision-making disappear the moment you see the video of the girl being rescued from the rubble, who immediately called out to her dad. Her dad had waited sixteen hours at the site while he waited for her to be rescued. You feel stupid for crying as you get dressed for the day. How can you cry when you know a father waits by her daughter's corpse for fifteen hours, staring into nothingness?
You learn the valuable lesson of activism burnout.
While you're constantly thinking of ways to help out, you start to get stress aches, and you feel tired all of the time. Things start to get better though, once you let yourself cry and feel the pain of your people. You're allowed to be upset, even if you’re privileged. You put your guilt aside, and use the fire in you to help out however you can. You brainstorm fundraising ideas, meet with people at the university who are more than eager to help and provide a shoulder to lean on, and realise that you have another community right here. The death toll rises. More stories come out, about those who spent 150 hours under the rubble and survived, and those that didn't. Eventually, you find that volunteering for the fundraising efforts and throwing yourself into schoolwork can distract you, and you just pray for better days.
My story may be specific to the earthquake in Turkey and Syria, but I imagine many students here at UBCO have experienced similar worries.
Whether it be during the farmer's protests in Punjab, the people's protests in Hong Kong, the revolution in Iran, the attacks on Syria, the Taliban’s active fight against human rights in Afghanistan, or the catastrophic flood in Pakistan, I can't imagine just how many students like me had to sit through lectures while their spirit was with those back home.
I can't say I know exactly how you all felt, but I know how it feels to have to go about your day peacefully while you feel like the earth is ending around you. I don't know what the moral of this story is either. I just hope those who have been fortunate enough not to experience such tragedies can form an idea of how international students feel. And, I hope for those who have gone through these experiences to understand that they're not alone, even though it feels like they are.
Sometimes communities form in the darkest places. It's important to let yourself be a part of those communities, because suffering alone never makes it easier.