Tremors Felt Across the World: The Kahramanmaras Earthquakes and Their Aftermath

Art by Nour El-Solh

A magnitude 7.8 earthquake known as the Kahramanmaras Earthquake hit northwestern Syria and southeastern Turkey on February 6. After the deadliest earthquake since the 2011 earthquake in Fukushima, Japan, 10 provinces in Turkey are under a state of emergency for the next three months. The Hatay, Kahramanmaras, and Gaziantep provinces were hit the hardest. As of February 23, the death toll has surpassed 49,000; while Turkish authorities have reported more than 43,000 deaths and UN reports have estimated 5,500 deaths in Syria, casualties are expected to rise in coming weeks. Additionally, more than 5,600 buildings across southeastern Turkey have completely collapsed, leaving 380,000 people in the region homeless and without shelter, food, or access to medical care and rescue assistance. The conditions of this ongoing humanitarian crisis have drawn stark attention to the inadequate response from the Turkish and Syrian governments, as well as from the international system. 

Senior Sedrah Mashhour, co-president of the Tufts Arab Student Association, discussed the geopolitical climate in Syria prior to the earthquake, which “hit a region [of northern Syria] that has already been really heavily impacted by not only the Syrian Civil War, but also… it contains a huge population of [internally displaced refugees].” Mashhour said that prior to the earthquakes, it was almost impossible to survive on just a teacher’s salary, despite the fact that it’s considered a top job, due to the terrible economic conditions in Syria. Now, people “don’t have shelter, period. They don’t have access to clean water. There’s no sewage system in place. Food is hard to get. It’s the middle of winter now. So, hypothermia is a huge and real concern,” according to Mashhour. 

Yet in the aftermath of one of the most destructive earthquakes to have hit the region, the Turkish and Syrian governments have been unresponsive. Mashhour explained that the Syrian government has not taken any substantial effort to help Syrians affected by the earthquake due to the civil war. She added, “Personally, I don’t think that the Syrian government is really interested in helping citizens based on what we’ve seen for the past decade.” 

In Turkey, no military forces were sent to the affected areas, and residents in regions impacted by the earthquakes who attempted to get in contact with  the Turkish Disaster and Emergency Management Presidency (AFAD) received no response. Furthermore, from February 8 to early morning on February 9, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan banned Twitter to reportedly stop disinformation from spreading and to limit the criticism toward the Turkish government. By banning Twitter for 12 hours, Erodgan effectively limited a crucial way in which people could share their or loved ones’ locations for rescue efforts. 

This inadequate earthquake response is a consequence of the Turkish government’s shift to a centralized presidential system in 2018 and decisions to cut funding and support for the government’s disaster response agencies. This year, the AFAD budget was cut by almost a third, and AFAD now falls under the interior ministry, which reports to the presidency. The reduced funding and centralization of AFAD limited its ability to mobilize quickly, and local units in the affected regions were unable to coordinate or act according to local needs, which only further delayed the time in which responders could get to those under collapsed buildings. 

On Tufts’ campus and in the surrounding area, there have been ongoing efforts to support and send supplies to those in the regions destroyed by the earthquakes. Tufts Students of Turkey has raised over $16,500 since the earthquakes began through different fundraiser events, such as a bake sale with The Palmier. These fundraisers have helped support supply drives in the Boston area. Senior Eva Devletsah, co-president of Tufts Students of Turkey, said the Boston Turkish Consulate has been accepting relief supplies to ship to Turkey, such as sleeping bags, tents, and warm clothes. Freerange Market, a store in Medford, Mass., has turned half of its store into a donation center where Devletsah and other members of Students of Turkey have been helping to pack boxes and sort through donations. 

When Tufts’ Middle Eastern Dental Society found out about the catastrophic event, the organization decided to send their Valentine’s Day rose fundraiser proceeds to earthquake victims. The Arab Student Association has collected over $2,000 in donations to support impacted individuals’ families. Mashhour said being able to raise this many donations has been amazing. “$2 can buy a piece of bread [in Syria]. So $2,000 has been wonderful in helping hundreds of Syrians,” she said. The ASA donated these funds to the Syrian Friendship Association, a humanitarian group that lends aid to Syrians residing in Turkey and Syria. 

While students impacted by the catastrophe have found support within their own student communities, some believe the response from Tufts as an institution has been insufficient. Devletsah said, “There was a lack of response and lack of acknowledgement from Tufts University as an institution as a whole. And I would have really liked a community-wide message or community-wide email… recognizing the situation and providing resources in which students could help and students could donate.” Mashhour expressed a similar sentiment. She said, “We [MENA students] feel like we’re overlooked on this campus. Just to see [my friends and family impacted by this] going through the same pain that I was feeling was difficult to deal with on top of classes on top of exams.” 

 In a written statement to the Tufts Observer, Tufts Executive Director of Media Relations Patrick Collins said, “Unfortunately, given the sad prevalence of natural disasters, violence, and intolerance in our own country and around the world and the resulting volume of requests for presidential statements, the president cannot send statements after every incident and request. Like most of his presidential colleagues, President Monaco’s general practice is to send statements only when an issue or incident directly affects the members of the Tufts community and their ability to work and study, or is related to higher education and the conduct of research.” 

These earthquakes, however, have directly impacted the Tufts community. Talking about Tufts Students of Turkey, Devletsah said, “All of us felt [that] it’s really sad to be here and to look at what’s going on in Turkey. And so it was difficult to balance that emotionally… and after a certain point, you don’t necessarily have the bandwidth to continue organizing all these events and donation drives and supply drives.” 

While Collins shared that the International Center sent a message to Tufts’ Turkish international students the Monday after the earthquakes and posted on the I-Center’s blog about the disaster, students from across the MENA region who have been impacted by this disaster expressed a desire to see more support from Tufts administrators. Senior Omayma Dalal, co-president of the ASA alongside Mashhour, commented, “It’s been really hard to support all of the MENA students on campus…[when] we don’t even have the space or resources to do so.” Moreover, as Devletsah said, an institution-wide message providing resources to help support victims of the disaster could have substantially helped students organize and raise funds for earthquake victims. This act would have additionally helped support victims and families affected by the disaster, a burden that some students feel has been left on their shoulders. 

For MENA students, Western media shapes public perceptions of the region in a way that fails to highlight these disasters’ impacts. Dalal said, “People don’t see these stories because [they’re] not being expressed in American media. All they see is numbers.” Devletsah said, “We in the West tend to view bad things that happen in the Middle East as tragedies, and we tend to overlook them because we’ve normalized them in the region.” In looking at the US’ media response to the crisis, Devletsah found “there’s [not] much discourse going on around what people can do to help, the resources that can be provided. Maybe it isn’t the main focus of Western, American-centric media.” 

Dalal called into question whether Western countries are truly committed to helping Middle Eastern countries rebuild. She said Western countries have played a role in creating the economic and political state of most Middle Eastern countries and have “interfered with the politics and the well-being of the citizens there, [so] it would feel unfair if they left the citizens struggling to survive right now without providing any support.” This commitment requires moving beyond just immediate disaster funding. As Mashhour said, “This earthquake [response] is going to need continuous support.” Creating large, systemic change such as shifting the framework of support and improving governments’ responses to international humanitarian crises will take time. In the meantime, the response and support from local communities, towns, and states play an important role in building a collective system of support for those impacted by humanitarian crises.

Devletsah encouraged people to “think about why you might be more inclined to help a tragedy that has happened in the West, as opposed to something that has happened in the Middle East,” and hoped that Tufts students can check on friends who are from the region. She suggested a simple text like “‘I’m thinking of you,’ and ‘Hey, I hope your family is okay’… [It] doesn’t take much to show someone that you’re there for them or that you’ve thought of them.” 

The ASA’s fundraiser is ongoing and funds raised will directly be provided to Friends of Syria. To support, please reach out to Tufts ASA (@tuftsasa) on Instagram. The Turkish Consulate General in Boston is accepting “in-kind donations” between 9 a.m.–10 p.m.. at its office, located at 31 Saint James Ave.., Suite #840, Boston, MA. Large bulk donations can be delivered to Freerange Market in Medford at 325 Rivers Edge Dr. Linked below are different organizations to which Tufts students can donate and/or provide support. 

Syrian American Medical Society: Earthquake relief for Syria 

Turkish Philanthropy Funds: Turkey earthquake fund