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This is why none of your Turkish friends are okay 

Reading time: 6 minutes

Illustration by Esra Gülmen

This article and many more will appear in our next quarterly issue. Stay tuned!

This is not an article about the devastating earthquakes that hit another country. It is an article about your friends, whom you went to so many aperitivos with. As you should have noticed by now, Turkish people constitute one of the biggest international communities at Bocconi, if not the largest. Most of them are your classmates and friends, and they have been desperately trying to raise awareness of the earthquakes’ impact. This article is to help you understand why these earthquakes were unlike anything they have ever experienced, and why even those who are not from the affected area have been struggling so much. 

As you have most definitely heard, on February 6th not one but two devastating earthquakes of magnitude 7.8 and 7.6 hit Kahramanmaraş, in southern Turkey, only 8 hours apart from each other. Two weeks later, another earthquake of magnitude 6.4 occurred in the same region. The earthquakes were so powerful that they caused significant damage also in northern Syria, and tremors were felt as far as in Lebanon. In fact, this has been the deadliest disaster that modern Turkey has ever seen, meaning in over a century. So, when even Bocconi organized a memorial event to show support to its Turkish community, perhaps you realized that the situation was serious and took the initiative to reach out to a Turkish friend to ask if their family was okay. The “lucky” ones replied that at least their immediate family was living elsewhere and that they were safe, others responded that they had lost their loved ones. For those whose families are living on the other side of the country, in Istanbul, Ankara, or Izmir, for example, you would think that their lives would go back to normal within a few days from the earthquakes. However, that has not been the case. This time, it is bad. This time, your classmates, your friends, who you had so many aperitivos with, are not okay. 

The tragedy through the perspective of your friends and classmates

Before getting into the numbers, I want you to imagine waking up one day with the news that everything from Milan to Rome, including both those cities, are just rubbles. All that remains are people screaming to find their loved ones. Yes, from Milan to Rome. That’s the size of the area in Turkey that has been gravely affected by the earthquakes, without even mentioning the area in Syria. Shocked by the news, you call your parents back home to understand what just happened, if they were not in the affected area, and to make sure that they are alive if they were in the earthquake zone. I want you to imagine looking at pictures of entirely collapsed cities, videos of buildings crumbling as if it’s Jenga, and Instagram stories with names and addresses posted by people who can hear their loved ones’ voices under the rubbles and are desperately asking for help from the authorities. You swipe to the next story. This one is telling you how help and rescue never came, and that they can no longer hear any voice coming from the rubbles. Swipe. This one reads: “I’ve been asking for help to rescue my baby for hours, but don’t bother, she just died from the cold”. You go to regular posts, the first one is about the mass graves where people are being buried with a number tag, as if it’s WWI, because there isn’t enough time or space to burry tens of thousands of people simultaneously. Close the app. You can’t take it anymore. Five minutes later, you open it again to post about fundraising efforts and to ask people for help because that is the only thing you can do from afar. Now switch to WhatsApp to look at the group chat organizing donations to see how and where you can help, while still trying to grasp the weight of what is happening. 

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Just as you are telling yourself this couldn’t get any worse, scandals from your government that has been in power for the past twenty years, manage to exceed your expectations day by day. Now, you are not just devastated, but furious and nauseous from knowing that the relentlessly increasing death toll is not only the result of the earthquakes, but of corrupt engineers, construction firms, and inspectors. Most importantly, it has to do with a corrupt government that has allowed all of this corruption to happen. This is followed by the same government’s extraordinary inability to deal with the crisis, and their outrageous attitude to try to hide it. The government restricted access to Twitter when it held a critical role in directing rescuers to the rubbles where there were signs of life. It sued a woman for posing a tweet blaming the government and their lack of earthquake response right after the death of her mother. It told the media that everything was under control when the truth could not be any further from that. Finally, the President himself publicly insulted those who had asked “where is the government, where is the Red Crescent, when we need them the most?” by calling them “imprudent, depraved, vulgar and vile”. These are only some examples of what the government decided to do after the earthquakes instead of sending adequate and timely help. Moreover, your friends back home will have to complete their academic year online since the government decided to give national university residences to earthquake survivors, instead of any other available government accommodation. Thus, it deemed it would be fair to make all universities carry on online until the end of the year; as if most of the students haven’t already spent half of their university education online due to Covid. Instead of making sure that students from affected areas can continue their studies, it has been decided that the first thing to sacrifice should be education in the face of a crisis that caused this many casualties due to corruption and bad engineering. 

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You talk to your Turkish friends, some of them are crying, some can’t go to sleep, some can’t even react from the shock, and others feel ashamed for having a roof over their heads, food on their plates, and family members answering on the phone. However, as you walk on the streets of Milan, everyone is going on with their lives as if nothing happened. Meanwhile back home, schools all around the country are closed, all sports and cultural events are canceled until further notice. Even PKK, a militant group considered as a terrorist organisation by Turkey, the EU, and the US, announced that it is pausing its activities to concentrate on rescue efforts. Life has stopped. 

Unfortunately, I didn’t describe the worst, but only the average experience of someone who doesn’t even have family in the earthquake zone. This is what your Turkish friends’ and classmates’ days have been like for at least 10 days following the earthquakes, if they were the ‘lucky’ ones. They have been feeling pain, despair, fear, and rage all at the same time. Those from Istanbul, for example, started to imagine what it is going to be like when the big earthquake, that has been expected for the past twenty years, is going to hit the megacity with over 16 million inhabitants. What is going to happen to the city where they grew up, where their friends and family are? Will they also have to look for number tags in mass graves to find where their loved ones are lying, if they are lucky enough not to be lying there themselves? If this is the daily train of thought of those who are technically not affected by the earthquakes, what about those who are from one of the eleven cities that were hit? With eleven cities affected it is not that difficult to know someone who has family there, even in Bocconi. Their experience, pain and trauma are beyond any word that I am capable of writing.

This is why your friends have been desperately reposting fundraising efforts and donation opportunities, hoping that they will be able to convince others to help them help the ones in need. They are trying to make people understand that this is not just another earthquake, but a catastrophe that will mark an entire generation. This is why, as their friends, they need you to care and not let this pass as “just another tragedy in the Middle East”They needed you to ask “are you okay?” without having to reach out to you, because they are already screaming for help. They hated having to decide whether they should call their friends out or not for not helping them spread the news of the earthquakes, or for not even asking if their family was safe. They hated the fear of getting backlash for being “dramatic” if they called you out. They hated asking themselves: “it would be different if we were considered a western country, wouldn’t it?”. And if you did reach out recognizing the scale of this disaster and offered help, even if that help was simply checking in on them, reposting, or donating a small amount, know that it was appreciated way more than you think. 

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Now, the numbers: at least 47 thousand people have been killed by the earthquakes in total, over 40 thousand of them being in Turkey. Over one million people are now homeless, left with absolutely nothing to safeguard them from the snow and sub-zero temperatures. “Snow?”, you may ask. On contrary to popular belief, Turkey is not just a summer place with palm trees. In fact, the affected region was already going through particularly harsh weather conditions at the time of the earthquakes, making rescue efforts and survival even more difficult. With no water, gas, or electricity many who survived the rubbles have died from the cold. The scale of this tragedy is so large that practically every Turkish person knows someone who has been directly affected. To be honest, in the face of such an enormous extent of destruction and loss we are all affected by these earthquakes; they aren’t a past event, but a daily reality for millions.

This is why none of your Turkish friends are okay.

Author profile

Passionate about sustainability and social impact, I’m a BIG student who uses writing to take different perspectives on complex issues like climate change, social inequalities and the difficulties we face trying to navigate in this ever changing world. 

Raised in Istanbul where continents, cultures and cats meet.

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