When tragedy strikes, there are no expectations on how we are supposed to proceed. Even in light of dark events, we sometimes find beautiful examples of unity, as has been displayed by the Tufts Students of Turkey.
In the two weeks after a disastrous 7.8 magnitude earthquake and subsequent tremors struck parts of Turkey and Syria, TSOFT has acted quickly to contribute to the relief effort while supporting themselves and each other through the difficult news. Another 6.3 magnitude earthquake occurred in southern Turkey on February 20.
According to its members, TSOFT is a vibrant and tightly knit student club, known to the broader Tufts community for its Turkish coffee and backgammon events. Eda Devletsah, a senior and co-president of TSOFT, acknowledged how the earthquakes have severely shifted the priorities of the group.
“We’re friends first, before we’re a student organization. So we like to come together a lot and have bondings, … and we hadn't really had the opportunity to do that this semester yet,” Devletsah said. “So to start off the semester with something so tragic and so devastating, and ask people to mobilize and do that quickly was a little bit difficult.”
Devletsah also elaborated on the nomenclature of Tufts Students of Turkey, which was designed intentionally to open the club to a broader range of students that identify with Turkey in some form or another.
“Not everyone who is from Turkey is ethnically Turkish. And we’re, in a way, a melting pot of a country, [with] people of different ethnicities and backgrounds,” Devletsah said. “[As an organization] we wanted to … encapsulate that idea of the diversity that we have, and the inclusivity that we can have as an organization.”
Elif Uzelli, a first-year student and member of TSOFT, described how she initially reacted when news of the first earthquake broke.
“I knew that it was a huge earthquake. … We have a lot of earthquakes in Turkey, so it’s not uncommon.” Uzelli said. “I don’t think I could fully grasp the magnitude of destruction until the next morning.”
Devletsah added that she felt a bit paralyzed by the gravity of the situation.
“Seeing all of these social media posts … videos, news, there was just this constant flow of information, and that tends to lead to, at least for me, a lot of doom scrolling,” Devletsah said. “I quickly noticed that … feeling sad or anxious or guilty about this wasn't helping the situation, [that] I needed to remove myself emotionally from what had happened and realize, okay, this is what I can do to help, [though] there isn't much I can do from … so far away.”
However, TSOFT has gone to great lengths to do whatever they can to help from the Tufts campus.
The first earthquake occurred in the evening for students at Tufts. Echoing Uzelli, Devletsah agreed that for many TSOFT members, it seemed to have taken one night for the shock to sink in, then transform into action upon the realization that people in Turkey and Syria who were displaced or trapped under the rubble needed urgent help.
Within the first week, TSOFT was able to raise $8,253 through their outreach efforts, which was matched by an anonymous donor to amount to a total of $16,506. This included tabling at the Mayer Campus Center to collect monetary donations and essential supplies such as sleeping bags, hand warmers and dry foods. TSOFT members then sorted and hand-delivered the supply drive donations to the Turkish Consulate in Boston. Later on, TSOFT collaborated with the Palmier, Tufts’ culinary magazine group, to run a bake sale fundraiser.
Devletsah attested to the impact of the Tufts Office of Campus Life in accelerating the process that it takes to set up tables in the Mayer Campus Center.
“OCL was so helpful,” Devletsah said. “Tabling at the Campus Center, that has to be planned in advance, … [but] they were so understanding of our sense of urgency. … They really helped us get our events approved.”
Leveraging connections both within and outside Tufts has been instrumental to TSOFT’s efforts to raise awareness and funds for search and rescue organizations. Devletsah spoke to the power of social networks when it comes to crisis response.
“We got put into … a group chat and an email chain with all of these student organizations and they had connections in which they could find anonymous donors for us to match donations,” Devletsah said.
The funds raised by TSOFT have been transferred primarily to a disaster relief organization called AHBAP.
Devletsah said, “We wanted to make sure that we gave money to a credible organization that we knew was doing on-the-ground work, and we wanted it to be a Turkish organization, not something that was international.”
In exceptional times like these, it is important to take the initiative to reach out to those who may be affected by the disaster.
“It is a very difficult time [for] all of us, regardless if we don't have family affected, because the magnitude of the destruction is so big that you most likely know at least one person that’s directly affected by the earthquake,” Uzelli said. “So just ask your Turkish friends how they are, that has been very, very helpful for me at least.”
Melis Inanc, senior and vice president of TSOFT, concurred with Uzelli on the power of checking in with others.
“It means a lot just to hear people caring about it,” Inanc said.
Devletsah recalls a brief yet memorable encounter with Assistant Professor of Economics Federico Esposito, whose class she was enrolled in the past fall.
“I ran into [Professor Esposito] at the Joyce Cummings Center as I was filling up my water bottle … and the first thing he said [to me] after ‘hello, how are you’ was, ‘How was your family back in Turkey? Is everything okay? I'm sorry to hear about the earthquake,’” Devletsah said. “It really doesn't take a lot to ask people how they're doing.”
Sima Akdurak, a junior and secretary for TSOFT, grew up in Izmir, a coastal region in Western Turkey. She even spent her freshman year there attending Tufts remotely due to COVID-19. During that time, a 7.0 magnitude earthquake struck Izmir while Akdurak and her family were in the city.
“I was [shopping] with my mom and my sister, and all of a sudden we saw the cars going up and down. And we didn't realize it was an earthquake happening, and then I [looked] up and I [saw] the building doing this movement,” Akdurak said as she swayed both hands in a side-to-side motion.
Akdurak continued, “I remember my mom holding our hands and trying to take refuge in between cars … and thank God, two minutes before this happened … we [ran] into [my dad] and we knew that he was okay. But my extended family also lives in Izmir, so we were trying to call everyone to see if everyone [was] okay.”
Unlike Devletsah, who found herself doom-scrolling after the most recent Turkey-Syria earthquake, Akdurak avoided the news to preserve her own mental health.
“I did not look on social media for over seven days, because the graphic content and watching those videos triggered my PTSD after the earthquake,” Akdurak said.
The relatively strong infrastructure in Izmir reduced the effect that the earthquake had on the area. Inanc shared her thoughts and feelings following the Feb. 6 earthquake, pointing out that poor infrastructure exacerbated the aftermath.
“It’s not just survivor’s guilt,” Inanc said. “I felt really really ashamed for [the real estate and contracting businesses] who just took people’s money and gave them really unsafe houses.”
As an architecture major at Tufts, Akdurak is ever more spurred to gain the technical expertise needed to create safe and effective structures in her future career, which she plans on resuming in Turkey after graduation.
“[I] want to develop myself even more for my country and for the people that I’m going to serve,” Akdurak said, emphasizing the responsibility of architects in the infrastructure industry.
While it may not only be TSOFT members at Tufts who have been affected by the earthquakes, the group has clung onto their existing comraderie to support one another in times of hardship.
“Just by being together and knowing that there are people around you … [makes you] feel like you are not alone and you’re together as a community,” Inanc said.
Uzelli hypothesized that cultural norms might be an additional factor that has made it easy to empathize with people suffering back home.
“Maybe because our country’s relatively smaller, and our culture itself is very collectivistic,” Uzelli said. “So in terms of any kind of disaster, we just unite and we don't really question political differences, religious differences or cultural differences.”
According to Devletsah, the greatest challenge initially faced by TSOFT has been getting the word out about the disaster to the Tufts community.
“There wasn’t an institutional acknowledgement of the events that have happened,” Devletsah said. “A lot of my peers and my friends, or people around me, didn’t really know that such a thing had occurred in Turkey and in northern Syria.”
Uzelli stressed that the lack of any announcement from the main Tufts administrational body so far is unacceptable.
“I am very disappointed. We did receive an email from the International Center directed only towards Turkish students, which I thought was very sweet … but I don't think that’s enough. I think there has been a lack of awareness [at Tufts],” Uzelli said. “A lot of other institutions have been very open about acknowledging this and the fact that we didn’t even receive an Instagram post [from the official Tufts account], or any kind of public statement, is very disappointing.”
Devletsah pointed out that there seemed to be a disconnect between how crises in different parts of the world are received with varying levels of attention, sympathy and philanthropy.
“I think [in the West] there's this understanding that people of the Middle East have tragedies happen to them, and it's been normalized,” Devletsah said. “But, why are we more inclined to help gather support for the people of Ukraine, or like for the burning of Notre Dame Cathedral a couple of years ago in Paris, than we are to help and recognize the disaster that has impacted people in Turkey and in Syria? Is it just internalized xenophobia that we have, or have we just come to accept that that region of the world is doomed?”
This unnerving notion has left Devletsah wondering if the world would have responded differently if such devastating earthquakes had occurred somewhere else, and she invites others to think about that question.
In spite of the dire situation, TSOFT has remained strong in their pledge to do what they can to help victims suffering in Turkey and Syria. They have mobilized rapidly and continue to call for support from the Tufts community through their Instagram page. Akdurak expressed the joy that she felt towards displays of solidarity.
“After I saw the amount of money that we collected just 24 hours after [the first earthquake], I was shocked and I was really happy with how supportive the Tufts community was,” Akdurak said. “That's been very memorable for me. If you reach out to people, [know] that they will help you.”