By Negin Khodayari
Busra Kotan was having dinner with her family when she heard the news that would change the world around her. “We left our dinner on the table. We were just watching the news,” she says. “[Earthquakes] usually happen in Türkiye but this time it was different.”
On the morning of Feb. 6, a 7.8 magnitude earthquake hit southeast Türkiye and northern Syria, causing the collapse of approximately 3,000 buildings. It was followed by another 7.5 magnitude earthquake a few hours later, according to the United Nations (UN).
As of Feb. 13, the death toll had risen to over 36,000 in the affected regions, according to the Disaster and Emergency Management Presidency (AFAD) and The White Helmets civil defence group.
“We are connected. In times like these…we unite and we share our pain.”
Kotan says while not all Turkish students may know people who are directly affected by the disaster, they all share the pain of those who are suffering. “The thing about our culture is…it’s not rooted in individualism,” Kotan says. “We are connected. In times like these…we unite and we share our pain.”
As a fourth-year social work student at Toronto Metropolitan University (TMU), Kotan was expecting the university to at least raise awareness about what was happening in her homeland. “That was not the case,” she says.
Instead, Kotan says the university emailed international students at TMU a list of copy and pasted links to resources that were not all updated.
“On the day of the earthquake, our university’s Instagram page posted fun stories,” she says. “We just felt unheard, unseen and uncared for.”
Kotan says she personally knows 16 or 17 other students at TMU who feel the same way.
While the Toronto Metropolitan Students’ Union (TMSU) and some student groups have stepped up to support the Turkish and Syrian communities, Kotan feels the university should be doing more.
Other Ontario universities were quicker to share their support. The University of Toronto posted a list of recent fundraisers on its main Instagram page and referred to a statement from its vice president just days after the incident.
At the time The Eyeopener interviewed students, TMU had not yet addressed the disaster on its social media pages nor had it sent out any emails in this regard.
On Monday Feb. 13, a week after the tragedy, the school released a TorontoMet Today statement providing links to some mental health resources on campus.
“The thoughts of the entire TMU community are with those who have been affected by the earthquake—both those who have experienced the devastation first hand and those members of our community who have a connection to this area and to family and friends there,” the statement read.
TMU president Mohamed Lachemi has yet to publicly comment on the matter and address the university.
The Eye reached out to Lachemi for a statement on the situation. “It’s a very tough time and my thoughts and prayers are with students, their families and with all the people who have been affected by this huge earthquake,” he said.
When The Eye asked for a comment regarding students expressing their wish to see more action on behalf of the school, a TMU representative referred us to the TorontoMet Today statement released on Feb. 13.
“We just felt unheard, unseen and uncared for.”
Kotan says she felt like she was overlooked in the university community when no proper statement was released.
“Some of us tried to contact the mental health services available at the campus and they just sent us a bunch of forms that we had to fill,” she says.
On campus, there have been student-led efforts to support those impacted by the natural disaster. The TMSU and the Muslim Students’ Association (MSA) have organized week-long events to collect donations for Türkiye, Syria and other affected regions.
Aya*, the Faculty of Arts director at the TMSU and a member of the equity and social justice committee as well as the student action committee, says two students started the initiative supported by the students’ union and MSA. The two had reached out to their followers on Instagram looking to collect donations when Aya contacted them on behalf of TMSU and later partnered with MSA to amplify their efforts.
Aya, who lost two family members in Syria last week, has been personally impacted by the earthquakes. “I’ve been very distraught by everything that’s happening and I want to contribute,” says Aya.
“It was very traumatic. I still had to come and participate in my daily life as if nothing had happened…the world around me kept moving.”
On Feb. 11, the TMSU posted a statement online regarding the earthquakes. “Many members of our campus community are deeply saddened by the current crisis,” the statement read. “Please be caring and empathetic to each other during this period and reflect on the capacity we have to do our own research, donate energy and resources to relief projects and be there for each other.”
Aya says while the TMSU and MSA are doing their best to get donations, most of what is collected goes toward aiding Türkiye.
“What about Syria?” Aya asks, saying the best people can do is send monetary donations through The White Helmets, which she says is one of the only reliable resources available to help northern Syrians.
“The circumstances in northern Syria are especially hard because of the border sanctions,” Aya says. “Even though the American sanctions have eased up a bit at the moment, border crossing is still a big issue.”
According to the United Nations, northern Syria has been in a state of civil crisis for almost 12 years and has been sanctioned by the United States (U.S.) on key economic sectors such as oil, gas, electricity, trade, construction and engineering. Since the earthquakes, the U.S. has issued a six-month sanction exemption for all transactions related to disaster relief in Syria, as stated by the U.S. Department of Treasury.
“Wealthy people, corrupt politicians do not suffer as much as the ordinary people on the streets.”
The president of the MSA, Sara Fawzy, says it’s important to support those who are impacted and reassure them they’re not alone. “A lot of students might feel helpless,” she says, explaining that the MSA’s goal is to use their platform for good.
Moving forward, the MSA is looking to organize student events centred around mental health to offer additional support to those who need it. “[This] can be very traumatizing,” Fawzy says.
Mustafa Koç, professor of sociology at TMU and an expert on social change and politics in Türkiye, says the country is prone to natural disasters which are made worse with the region’s political actions.
“What we are observing is the failure of the state,” he says. “Wealthy people, corrupt politicians do not suffer as much as the ordinary people on the streets.”
Koç says the aftermath of the earthquakes would’ve been different if the infrastructure of the cities had been stronger and if buildings were constructed to meet engineering standards by appropriate workers.
Koç, who is currently in Türkiye, says one thing that makes him really hopeful is the response from people and civil society organizations. “Everybody is here to help save lives, to help people on the streets and people appreciate that,” he says. “It tells us that we are all human and we really need to come to each other’s rescue.”
He says while people in Toronto may not be able to save any lives from afar, they can at least discover their own humanity by sharing their support.
Kotan says even if students can’t donate anything, she advises them to reach out to people they know from Türkiye and Syria. “None of us are doing okay,” she says.
“But just [saying] ‘I’m there for you if you need someone to talk to’ [and] make us feel not lonely and abandoned, [that] would be great.”
The Eyeopener has compiled a list of trustworthy resources to help those impacted by the earthquakes.
With files from Racy Rafique and Gabriela Silva Ponte.
*A previous version of this article included this source’s last name which has since been removed to protect the source’s identity.