Grieving Turks and Syrians Abroad Rally to Help Their Homelands

In Berlin, roads are blocked by boxes and people frantically unloading trucks of baby formula. In Melbourne, Australia, a halal-butcher shop hosts distraught expatriates, packing tents and sharing their grief. And in London, volunteers spend their mornings shuttling vans full of donations to the airport.

Faced with chilling images of destruction after the massive earthquake that struck southern Turkey and northern Syria — and an agonizing wait for news from those they love — the world’s Turkish and Syrian diaspora communities, around 30 million people, have mobilized to send help to their homelands.

Nearly everywhere, they are hastily organizing groups to pack boxes from sunrise to sunset, sometimes unsure even of where their supplies will go, or who will bring the trucks to move them. Some are volunteering with vehicles to shuttle donations. Others have chartered planes to fly goods and people to Turkey. The quake’s death toll had risen above 11,500 people on Wednesday.

Perhaps nowhere are the intermingled desperation and determination as palpable as on the streets of immigrant neighborhoods in Germany.

Germany is home to the world’s largest Turkish diaspora, an estimated three million people, many of whom came or are the descendants of those who came as “guest workers”— laborers brought in to help rebuild postwar Germany from the 1960s onward. Since 2015, Germany also opened its doors to nearly one million Syrians who fled the civil war in their country.

Members of the Turkish community in Berlin. Germany is home to the world’s largest Turkish diaspora, an estimated three million people.Credit…Filip Singer/EPA, via Shutterstock

Across Germany, diaspora groups are organizing food and clothing drives, filling concert halls and rented ball rooms.

“I think that’s why so many of us come out here, why we are so frantically helping — this is the only thing you can do to distract yourself from the worst thoughts, when you’re facing so much grief,” said Kübra Ergün-Bektas, a staff member at the Dosteli senior care home in Berlin, which has been organizing donations since 7 a.m. on the day the quake struck.

Only two from the Dosteli team are were not at work, she notes, her eyes reddening with tears: Colleagues whose loved ones remained trapped under the rubble in southern Turkey. They are at home, desperately contacting relatives, or waiting for a phone call that Ms. Ergün-Bektas fears will never come.

For the rest of the staff members, who care for Turkish-speaking residents in Berlin, distraction is the order of the day. They stand outside in the freezing cold to direct neighbors laden with trash bags full of diapers, and strangers who drive up in a van, draped in a Turkish flag, to unload food and jackets.

Deadly Quake in Turkey and Syria

A 7.8-magnitude earthquake on Feb. 6, with its epicenter in Gaziantep, Turkey, has become one of the deadliest natural disasters of the century.

  • A Devastating Event: The quake, which was followed by an aftershock almost as big, rippled through neighboring countries; an area along the Syrian-Turkish border was hit particularly hard.
  • From the Scene: Thousands of people have been killed, and dozens of cities have been gutted. Here is how witnesses described the disaster.
  • A Grieving Diaspora: Turkish people around the world have rallied to provide support to one another and send aid to their family members in the quake-stricken territories.
  • Young Victims: From a baby in the rubble to a trapped teen, harrowing images have emerged of the children caught in the quake.

One German-Turkish university student was unloading a carful of phone charging banks. She said she hoped they would help families frantic to reach loved ones abroad from quake-stricken regions with little electricity.

Similar scenes are taking place across the globe. In Melbourne, where the Turkish-Australian community exceeds an estimated 300,000 people, dozens of volunteers in the parking lot behind a halal butcher shop packed three shipping containers with cardboard boxes full of new tents, blankets and sleeping bags.

“Everyone here has someone they know out there that’s been affected,” said Kasiye Kuru, one of the organizers of the effort. A friend who had left Australia to move to Gaziantep, Turkey, close to the epicenter of the quake, had lost her home, she said. “She built that home with so much love and care, but what do you do? She’s alive.”

For Syrians abroad, the pain of helplessness is even harder to assuage. Theirs is a country buckling under compounding crises: A civil war, disease after years of destruction. And now, northwestern Syria, the very region that faced the brunt of the 12-year conflict, has been hit by the quake.

Qusay Eyyas, a 23-year-old Syrian refugee, took a day off work to help drive truckloads of goods from the Dosteli senior home to the Berlin airport.

He knows the aid he helps deliver is unlikely to reach to his homeland, where civil war and political wrangling has complicated the arrival of goods. Areas controlled by President Bashar al-Assad’s government are under Western sanctions. The crossings into rebel-held areas will rely on goods entering from neighboring Turkey, where roads are severely damaged.

“It is so hard, knowing that Syria, a place that does not seem to be spared any tragedy, will not get all it needs,” he said. “But at the end of the day, I had to do something. I have to help someone, anyone, if I can.”

A rescue operation on Wednesday in the rubble in Iskenderun, Turkey.Credit…Sergey Ponomarev for The New York Times

Some Syrian expatriates in Berlin are organizing personal drives to try and get money to the worst-hit areas of northwestern Syria. Dana Sumlaji, a native of the northern city of Aleppo, is collecting money to transfer to her mother, who will distribute cash to neighbors who lost their homes and are camping outside on the streets.

“Because of sanctions on the regime, it’s impossible for us to send goods to Aleppo, so it’s better to get money directly into someone’s hands,” she said. “I sent aid to help opposition areas in the northwest. But Aleppo is my home: I know those people, I know how much they’ve suffered and will keep suffering. A person is a person — I will help people no matter whose region they are in.”

In Britain, Turkish-owned businesses are canvassing their customers, and students are hosting bake sales at their universities to raise money for humanitarian groups.

“When there are such certain things, war and disaster, people get together,” said Atilla Ustun, a spokesman for British Turkish Association. He said residents of Luton, England, where he lives, had managed to scrape together about $30,000 in the past few days and collated about 10 to 15 tons in donations.

“We try to do our best in a time of crisis like this,” he said. “Being a part of a big tragedy, we’re all a big part of the picture itself.”

In Melbourne, volunteers secured boxes with tape as they shared accounts of relatives and friends displaced by the quake and its aftershocks, and images they had seen on social media. The gathering became not just a way to rally support, but impromptu group therapy.

One man said he was from the city of Kirikhan, Turkey, in Hatay Province, and that he had lost several family members, including a cousin, whose wife and child had also died.

The Dosteli nursing home in Berlin has become a collection spot for those donating to the earthquake’s victims.Credit…Erika Solomon/The New York Times

Bea Tercan, one of the organizers of the drive, said, “There’s been a lot of emotions happening here. A lot of people crying, a lot of people are feeling the pain, not getting through to their loved ones, which has been devastating. It’s the worst not to be able to hear someone’s voice and not know where they are, whether they’re stuck, whether they’re alive, whether they’re just screaming for help.”

For Ms. Tercan, seeing video of people struggling amid the wreckage brought back vivid memories of her experiences as a survivor of the 1999 earthquake in Izmit, Turkey, in which more than 17,000 people died.

“I know what they are living through,” she said. “It’s not something that people expect. You can never imagine it until you live it, and I pray no one lives it.”

Around the world, the diaspora outpouring seemed nonstop.

Outside the Dosteli senior home in Berlin, the lead organizer, Melek Erkut, had only just cleared the street of boxes, before new crowds of people carrying plastic bags laden with goods arrived minutes later, and the rush to pack boxes began all over again.

On the previous night, Ms. Erkut said rows of boxed donations stretched hundreds of yards down to the main road. Most neighbors seemed happy to ignore the chaos, until one called the police to complain. But when the police arrived, Ms. Erkut said, they instead helped her block the road, to help the trucks load their goods faster.

Today will be the last day the senior center collects aid, she insisted. Tomorrow, it will go back to its normal routine, and volunteers and aid will be sent to formal charities.

But her colleague, Ms. Ergün-Bektas, smiled when she heard the organizer’s decree.

“That is what she said yesterday, and the day before that,” she said. “But then we show up here in the morning, and the whole road is filled up with boxes again.”

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