“We Bonded through Our Shared Trauma”: Turkish AUC Students between Alienation and Solidarity after Earthquake

By Hazal Karaagac

Collage by Sabine Besson

On the morning of 6 February, the Turkish community of AUC woke up to the news that an earthquake had struck the southeastern region of Turkey bordering Syria. It was one with a death toll their home country had experienced last time during the 1939 Erzincan earthquake.

The earthquake, with a magnitude of 7.8, was followed by numerous aftershocks and an independent quake nearly as large as the first. With a still-climbing death toll surpassing 35000 people, critics argue that the effects of what was seemingly an environmental catastrophe have been augmented by the government’s limited attention and intervention before the earthquakes as well as following the disasters. 

“Life here kept going as if nothing had happened”

– Asya Tektaş, third-year exchange student

That morning, Asya Tektaş, a Turkish third-year exchange student from Boğaziçi University, had a hard time processing the news. Seeing the Instagram stories and tweets of her friends posting addresses and begging the authorities to send help, the scale of the disaster started to reveal itself to her. She was mostly in bed for the next few days and could not do anything. “The house was a mess, I was a mess, and I could barely make it to classes,” she says, “If I was in Turkey, I would imagine that so many people around me would feel the same way I did, whereas here, life kept going as if nothing had happened. This made me feel alienated and alone.” 

Ilgın Karaoğlu, also a third-year exchange student from Boğaziçi University, felt similarly helpless. “I was alone, checking Twitter and crying in the cafeteria. I did not know anyone; people were staring at me. I was balling my eyes out.” No one around her knew what was happening, which was, to her, the hardest part: to keep on living. She expresses her feelings when she saw that her former roommate’s family members were stuck under the rubble for three days, “I was traumatised by what I saw, and had a hard time sleeping because I knew I would have nightmares. My heart was there, my mind was there, I could not truly focus on what was happening here in Amsterdam; it was tough.” 

Indeed, the earthquake happened only a few days after Tektaş and Karaoğlu had moved to Amsterdam. Tektaş says, “For me, the most overwhelming part was that we had just come to Amsterdam a few days ago, we had to settle down, and our courses were going to start that day. Everything was happening simultaneously. I knew that I had to focus on my life here, and I needed to stay away from the news.” Tektaş then looks at Karaoğlu and says, “Then we started spending so much time together because we understood each other”. Karaoğlu completes her sentence, “That’s how we bonded, through our shared trauma.”

Tektaş and Karaoğlu think that the collectivist nature of Middle Eastern cultures is reflected in how they reacted to the situation and perhaps also in how some of their international friends could not empathise with their pain. Tektaş explains, “What’s happening in Turkey is much more collective; they are in this together. But for us here, the best word to describe our situation would be actual alienation.” Karaoğlu adds, “I was crying like I lost someone in my family buried in the mass graveyards. I felt like a part of me was there. We share it; that’s how we handle our pain.”

“The government has handled it the worst possible way”

– Yasemin Sezer, second-year Humanities student

Yasemin Sezer, a second-year Humanities student, describes a range of emotions following the earthquake, from sadness to anger. “Even though an earthquake is a natural disaster, there could have been many ways to prevent what happens after,” she says. “Natural disasters are natural, but what is happening right now is the fault of people who are governing the country,” Sezer says, “They have been predicting a large earthquake for a while now, and the government collected taxes specifically to save for cases like earthquakes. The government has handled it in the worst possible way.” 

Yağmur Umay Sağlam, a second-year Humanities student, shares Sezer’s perspective, saying, “There should not be anyone to blame in a natural disaster. But in Turkey, there is, because of the weak infrastructure and the unreliability of seismic hazard regulations”.

Defne Güveli, a second-year Humanities student, shares her concerns regarding what’s awaiting the surviving victims in the affected regions. She questions, “How will they deal with the diseases and possible health concerns induced, for example, due to dead bodies in the region?” She is also concerned about the Syrian refugee issue, as some locals are agitated about their use of resources, which, she thinks, may lead to internal conflict. Güveli states the vulnerability of the region to conflicts due to a lack of regulations, which raises concerns about the future.

Bake sale at the dorms to raise for the victims of the earthquake. Photo by Hazal Karaagac

Turkish AUC students organised a bake sale to raise funds for the victims of the earthquake. The bake sale, held on 10 February, raised more than 2000 euros. The students baked various treats, from cookies and brownies to traditional Turkish desserts, and sold them to the school community. The funds raised will be donated to non-governmental organisations, such as Ahbap and AKUT,  to provide relief and assistance to the earthquake victims.

Karaoğlu expresses that the bake sale was more than just a fundraiser “We baked a cake together, and it felt good because it was a way for us to come together and do something positive amid all the sadness and worry,”. Tektaş says, “What bothered me the most was not being able to help. The bake sale allowed us to contribute and be a part of the effort to support those affected by the earthquake.” She also says, “Seeing the bake sale group chat and that other people were as worried as us, trying to donate and help each other was the most supportive experience. Baking that cake almost felt therapeutic to some extent.” Sezer agrees, “It was nice to see that we were able to contribute more than we individually could by supporting each other as the Turkish community. Not only did we support Turkey, but we supported each other a lot through all of this.”

“Even little words of encouragement would make a huge difference for us”

– Yasemin Sezer, second-year Humanities student

However, Sezer also expresses disappointment with AUC’s response to the earthquake. “I don’t think the school handled it well enough,” she said. “It took them a few days to email people about what was happening. I acknowledge that we are exposed to different things to different extents, but they should have acted faster.”

Sezer believes the school could have done more to support the Turkish community and raise awareness about the earthquake. “Not many professors have talked openly about the issue or acknowledged it,” she says. “Acknowledgment is enough. They should be sharing more resources to donate and help to spread knowledge about it. Aside from that, even little words of encouragement would make a huge difference for us.”

Sağlam emphasises her frustration about the lack of sufficient reactions and initiative from the school community, “When you see that many people die, have so many Turkish friends, you are introduced to the scale of the problem. Know that it happened, and be respectful of it.” Similarly, Tektaş shared her frustration with the lack of attention and support given to the problems in the Middle East. “I don’t understand people’s reactions to the problems in the Middle East. Is it that they do not get the news, is it that they do not understand its scale, is it that they do not think the people there are humans because they go through so much tragedy? Is it what they think?” she questioned. 

Her words shed light on a larger issue – the tendency for some global crises to be overlooked or underreported, despite the devastating impact on communities.

How can you still help? Some links for donations.

  • AKUT is a non-governmental Turkish search and rescue organization;
  • Ahbap is a non-governmental Turkish charity organization;
  • Turkish Philanthropy Funds is a US-based organization that helps donors support charitable causes in Turkey;
  • White Helmets is a Syrian civil defence organization that provides emergency response services in conflict zones.

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