A man wearing glasses with a short beard standing outside at night.
Fatih Ates, English Language Program student from Turkey. (Photo by Dina Weinstein, VCU Public Relations)

Students and staff from Turkey and Syria feel the impact of earthquake’s destruction

In response to devastating earthquake, members of the VCU community find ways to help, including efforts to raise funds and collect supplies.

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The earthquake that struck Furkan Erdogan’s hometown of Malatya, Turkey, on Feb. 6 ruined his family’s home, making it uninhabitable.

The Virginia Commonwealth University student’s parents, who are retired apricot farmers, moved to a relative’s home and when aftershocks damaged that building, they left again to another city to move in with Erdogan’s sister. Some of his cousins with small children stayed in their buildings that collapsed, trapping them for a week.

“It was a nightmare, waiting to hear from them that they are safe and healthy,” said Erdogan, who is pursuing a master’s degree in mechanical engineering in the College of Engineering. “The first week I couldn't sleep. Here, away from all family and loved ones, it was too difficult. Also, nobody knows what is going on, so there is not much emotional support. Some friends tried to support me. They sent their condolences, but it was a hard two weeks after the earthquake.”

Now Erdogan forces himself to limit the time he spends searching news reports from Turkey to concentrate on finishing his degree in May. He is also contemplating rethinking plans to return to Turkey because the earthquake has made everything expensive and there is a lack of housing. Erdogan is now considering working or continuing his studies in the United States.

Ten cities in Turkey were affected during that initial 7.2 magnitude earthquake that reverberated in Syria as well. According to the Associated Press, current official estimates say the seismic event and aftershocks resulted in 47,000 fatalities, with many more injured and homeless.

Erdogan is one of 10 students from Turkey at VCU. There are also two visiting scholars from Turkey and one from Syria.

Fatih Ates, an English Language Program student from Turkey who is employed with a local construction company, created a video message with his employer to raise awareness of the destruction. He also sends funds to family and dependable nongovernmental organizations like Ahbap or Global Giving.

Ates’ wife back in Adana, Turkey, a city also shaken by the earthquake, told him of people in need throughout the city, families with babies sleeping in the streets or crammed into tents. She has spent funds he has sent her to feed Turkish people waiting for aid who are ravenously hungry.

While Ates would like to go back to Turkey to help, the aspiring filmmaker, who hopes to pursue an MFA at VCU, feels he can positively help through regular cash donations. But the problems are immense. His father’s family all live in Hatay, a city destroyed by the quake.

“They told me ‘We don't have a house, but we are alive.’ I said. ‘OK, but not OK,’” said Ates, whose adult siblings are housing around 25 people whose homes were damaged, in their houses on one side of Adana that was not damaged.

The constant pull of attention and concern is stressful and devastating for the VCU students here from Turkey to watch from overseas.

“At first it was terrible. I cried a lot,” said Huseyin Gedik, a VCU Ph.D. candidate in life sciences who is from Istanbul, which is far from the devastation. He was gripped and distracted from his work on his dissertation by the news reports of the destruction and loss of lives.

Messages of support

When the news of the earthquake reached the team in the Global Education Office, Stephanie Tignor, director of VCU global learning, said her team began discussing its potential impact on students and scholars, particularly those from Turkey and Syria, and how GEO could best support them during this tragedy.

Twelve students standing in front of the Cabbel Library
Muslim Student Association members at an association event raising funds for earthquake relief for people in Turkey and Syria. Left to right: Kamran Farouq, Ibraheem Masood, Hamayl Habib, Yusuf Moustafa, Basit Khan, Muhammad Gulsher, Tariq Gafar, Mohamed Salman, Meraj Shaikh, Ajnadeen Dahman, Nour al Huda and Areeba Chaudhary. (Photo by Tom Kojcsich, Enterprise Marketing and Communications)

“International students know that GEO is their home away from home and when the earthquake hit, they looked to us to ask what we [and] VCU could do,” Tignor said. “We want all of our international students to feel supported and cared for while they are thousands of miles away from their homes, loved ones and culture, especially during a major crisis like the recent earthquake. Our international students and scholars are an important part of our Ramily, and we want them to know that we see them, we are here for them, and we support them.”  

In addition to sending messages of support, Jill Blondin, associate vice provost for global initiatives, communicated with students from the impacted areas to encourage their applications and nominations for the IIE's earthquake relief emergency fund.

“These are funds provided by the Institute of International Education and have been available previously for students in crisis (during the COVID-19 pandemic, for instance). We have also created a special website, which includes available resources at VCU,” Blondin said.

Moved to assist

Many students that are a part of the VCU Muslim Student Association were moved to help as well.

“I think an earthquake at such a large magnitude and with so much damage is obviously upsetting to the community, especially because Turkey and Syria are primarily Muslim countries where we might have connections to these places,” said MSA president Ayesha Paracha. “Obviously from this distance, there's not much you can directly help, but everyone wants to put in an effort through fundraising and even just praying for the people.”

The MSA shared out and helped with efforts by local mosques collecting clothing donations and fundraisers. And on a recent Friday afternoon the student group held a dare board fundraiser where members of the club could pie board members with proceeds going to help earthquake victims.

Hala Al-Tinawi, a graduate student and administrator at VCU’s Institute for Contemporary Art, launched a joint effort between the Islamic Center of Virginia and the United2Heal health assistance organization, to collect both financial donations and essential supplies for the victims of earthquakes in Turkey and Syria, sent through the Turkish Embassy in Washington, D.C.

United2Heal is a nonprofit that was started over a decade ago by students at VCU that sends medical supplies to developing countries to eliminate health care inequity worldwide. Al-Tinawi, who is a VCU alum, is on the U2H national board as the director of events and fundraising.

Syria-born Al-Tinawi, whose family felt the earthquake in Damascus and know people affected by the damage, partnered with her brother Walid, a VCU alum who is also on the U2H national board, and Aya Yousseff, U2H VCU campus president, to fill a 20-foot truck filled with medical supplies, clothing, tents and generators on Feb. 9 and 17. It was Walid who drove the donations to the Turkish embassy in Washington, D.C. to be shipped to the affected areas.

“It was just too difficult to sit around doing nothing. We were just so heartbroken,” said Al-Tinawi. “I think the earthquake happened on a Monday. By Tuesday afternoon, we had created the poster about the donation plan. On Saturday, we were sorting the donations. We just knew we needed to do something, and we needed to act fast. It’s really emotional.”

A group of students sitting on a blue tarp in a circle. They are sitting in front of storage units, one with its door closed and the other open and full of boxes.
(From left to right around circle) Rhea Tammireddi, Hajjer Amer, Kyrah Golden, Sarah Klein, Aya Youssef, and Sydney Frank work in a group to log medical supplies into the United2Heal database. (Photo by Aya Youssef, VCU United2Heal president)

Youssef, who is a recent VCU graduate working in the Institute for Oral Health Research, mobilized her organization to send 35 boxes of medical supplies and do a coat drive. The group also collected blankets and hand warmers, feminine hygiene products, painkillers, walkers, and cold and flu medicines, partnering with an elementary school in the Richmond area.

“It feels like we are making a difference, even though I won't actually see the people get what we sent,” Youssef said. “I just know that having a kid get a jacket that they may not have had because they lost it when the earthquake hit, it's a good feeling.”

Though initial shock and efforts have subsided, for Erdogan, Gedik and Ates, keeping awareness about the impact of the recent earthquake in Turkey and remembering the victims remains important and impactful.