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In the aftermath of the earthquakes in Turkey: The road to safety and stability

As a stress researcher from Turkey, I was finalizing a manuscript on the long-term impact of trauma when my world turned upside down with a text about the earthquake that originated in southeast Turkey.

I am on a leave in New York, it's close to sunrise in Turkey, and I have racing thoughts from the safety of my loved ones and the extent of the damage, to what people would need immediately and the long-term impact of it all.

So, I froze for a while, with my mouth open, staring at my computer screen... looking at a manuscript now felt ridiculous, but also quite painful with my awareness of the consequences of such trauma.

How will we recover from this?

It has now been almost a month after the two earthquakes with magnitudes higher than 7.5, directly affecting more than 20 million people in Turkey and Syria, with an increasing death toll over 50,000 people. For those who survived, they have lost their loved ones, homes, jobs, neighborhoods, and cities in the middle of the winter. Millions outside the region and abroad mourn for their loved ones, countries, and all that is lost.

Figures created by and used with the permission of Emre Danisan.

No one is fine...

I reach out to relatives and friends in the region, shamefully relieved a bit that they are alive, and people keep saying "We are fine."

I have friends who lost their houses saying, "We are fine, we are in our car for the night. I stutter but it would pass soon." Another says "We are fine, we are in a tent, but have plenty of blankets."

Friends around the globe call me to ask how I am, I also find myself saying "I am fine" though I feel numb all over. One second, I find myself agitated buying blankets, diapers whatever I can find online, at another stunned to think about how this will all pass... The more I talk to people, the more I realize how everyone is broken.

And these are people I can reach and talk to.

I think about the millions that we can't, that are homeless, freezing, with no access to proper living conditions. I remember talking about the importance of keeping our daily routines intact during times of distress, but what happens when you lose the context of them all?

When my dear friend and colleague Carmine Pariante kindly suggested me to write this piece, not a word came up for a while, followed by a period of intense emotions, questioning, and introspection pages and pages long. During this time, I am grateful to many friends around the world that reached out for support, which made me to shift the focus of this piece to contemplate on how we can find our road back to safety and stability.

Where do we go from here?

Researching the lifelong impact of stress, traumatic events like an earthquake is an example I often use in my classes to emphasize how the impact may change from one individual to the other.

The most severe impact is in people who are directly exposed, and it is of utmost importance to provide immediate shelter and basic needs to at least ameliorate the physical conditions. Since the earthquakes happened, in addition to state organizations, there is pouring support from NGOs and people all over the two countries and the world.

I hear stories from friends about the extraordinary lengths people go to travel to the region and help in whatever way they can. Social media is full of pictures of empty shelves in stores outside the region, online shopping sites are overloaded with orders. There are meetings, concerts, scholarships organized all over the world to raise donations to support people affected. In the midst of this tragedy and chaos, seeing this solidarity among people creates a little breather.

However, as a doctor friend of mine in the region says, "the damage is too big and the numbers affected are just too much". The news report millions left without housing, mountains of rubbles to be removed to build hundreds of thousands of new houses to accommodate the people affected.

Until then, there is still an enormous need for temporary shelters and access to basic needs. A friend says, "I have nothing left, thankfully I remembered to grab my coat and purse rushing out. Then I look at people spending the night in the rain while we are in our car, I feel devastated for them."

Therefore, if you are reading this article, know that any support is still needed and would go a long way...

Some links for donations:

Apart from these, thousands are in need for medical care and mental health services that the nearby cities cannot handle. I read about all the people losing their limbs, those searching the rubbles for their loved ones, and those who are too afraid to sleep or stay indoors.

All over the internet people post their CVs and search for jobs, stating things like "I lost my wife and kid, but I need a job in a nearby city to look after my other kid that survived." People are in a constant "survival mode" and grief is a luxury.

There are different national and international NGOs and agencies in the area supported by volunteers, psychological centers opening their resources online and organizing trainings to send volunteers to the region, while others focus on creating safe areas for women and children. These efforts are extremely important to start with, but the challenge is to reach the whole region and stay there for a long time. Different initiatives to support affected individuals from the region have started, such as scholarships and work opportunities, and more will be needed, especially for specific risk populations, like pregnant women and children.

So distant but so close

While people in the region are fighting for survival, the pain, grief, and fear spreads across the countries, moving beyond borders. Undergraduates I talk to experience this much of a trauma and loss the first time in their lives, mentioning they are overwhelmed by waking up to death news from friends every day. Everyone is fixated on watching the news for hours, crying after lives lost or celebrating rescues, days after the earthquake. There is a deep anger, sorrow, and guilt associated with being away. Our minds are constantly occupied with the news and what we can do to help.

At the same time, everyone is bombarded with the news of the fault lines of Turkey, filled with fear of sleeping, thoughts of moving to different cities, and feelings of insecurity all the time. It's been almost 24 years after the 1999 Izmit earthquake that killed over 17,000 people. The recent earthquakes triggered the trauma of many who experienced the 1999 earthquake, whereas the younger generation is afraid it could happen to them at any moment.

Therefore, no matter where they are, people of Turkey and Syria are going through a debilitating period of loss, grief, and pain.

So, those friends at a nearby school, workplace, or neighborhood are in dire need of emotional support, even though they will rarely express the need and keep silent. I know that acknowledging their pain and showing support even with a text or a hug will help them move forward during these times of despair. Life teaches us that social connection is most helpful during times that we feel like completely isolating ourselves.

Looking ahead...

Almost a month after this tragedy, I wanted to express how people are affected and what might be done to support their healing, knowing that this writing only represents a minimal portion of the story. There will be many others to emphasize different aspects, and things will get better in time, but for now I think we can all gather around the idea that support is critical. In that respect, I hope this piece may give you some more personal insight into what is happening and the ways in which you may help us get better.


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