Last Monday, a magnitude 7.8 earthquake ripped through southern Turkey and northern Syria. It was the worst earthquake Turkey has experienced in more than 80 years. Tens of thousands of people have died so far, with that number expected to grow amid the rubble of thousands of destroyed homes and buildings. Humanitarian relief agencies are struggling to provide aid to millions of people in need, especially in Syria, where 12 years of civil war has left 90 percent of the population dependent on humanitarian aid. Portland-based organizations have responded to the crisis by mobilizing earthquake relief efforts in Syria and Turkey. Kieren Barnes is the Syria country director for Mercy Corps, which has a team of aid workers in Northwest Syria, some of whom lost relatives and their homes in the earthquake. Ozcan Ertem is the secretary of the Oregon Turkish American Association which has been collecting online donations and preparing items such as donated clothes and medical supplies to deliver to Turkey.
This transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.
Dave Miller: From the Gert Boyle Studio at OPB, this is Think Out Loud. I’m Dave Miller. As the death toll from the massive earthquake in Turkey and Syria continues to rise, humanitarian agencies are scrambling to help millions of people in dire need of aid. In a few minutes, we’ll get an update from the Oregon Turkish American Association. But first we turn to Portland-based Mercy Corps which has been coordinating relief efforts in Syria for years now, well before this latest disaster. Kieren Barnes is the Syria Country Director for Mercy Corps. He joins us now from neighboring Amman, Jordan. Kieren, welcome.
Kieren Barnes: Thanks David, I appreciate the time to chat.
Miller: Can you give us a sense for what life was like in the affected parts of Northwest Syria before this earthquake?
Barnes: Yes, this is probably one of the most vulnerable parts of Syria during the conflict for the last 12 years. It’s an isolated pocket in the northwest. It’s controlled by different rebel groups, so there’s not a lot of central coordination. Sadly, out of a population of about 4.5 million, there’s about 4 million that are in need, and sadly, of that total, we have 2.8 million people already displaced. So they don’t have permanent homes, they’re living in temporary shelters, and also moving multiple times. So it’s a desperate situation. People are heavily reliant on organizations like Mercy Corps and others for things like shelter, like food, access to clean water, and just some of the basics just to sustain their lives.
Miller: But what have the challenges been in providing that aid for a group like Mercy Corps or any others?
Barnes: Our team on the ground is actually kind of isolated. We can’t access them as international team members, so all of this is done remotely. We connect with them on a daily basis. But it does make it difficult to coordinate the activities without a centralized government that can help support with communication of where the needs are and where to go next. A lot of the time we have to do that amongst each of the NGOs [non-governmental organizations].
And then simply, just the scale of the response means that we never really feel like we’re achieving as much as we need to do. So prior to last Monday, this was already a tough ask, and it’s been years of doing this. But our team on the ground is relentless and they’ve been through a lot of crises with the Ukraine response impacting, with cholera, and the conflict in Syria itself.
Miller: Those numbers are so stark. Out of about 4.5 million people in the region, 4 million are in need. What exactly do they need? I should say, in my mind, this is before one week ago. We’ll get to the earthquake in just a bit.
Barnes: Yes, absolutely. Those 4 million people need those basics – basic supplies. So food to eat, clean water. I mean that’s especially hard. In Mercy Corps we serve 98 camps and we get water from the boreholes from water supply, safe water. And we have to truck it across to those camps and distribute. And that’s water for people to wash themselves, to wash their dishes and also for drinking. That’s just one key element. But then other organizations will provide things like health care, the medical supplies, the needed education. There is just not an infrastructure there to support these 2.8 million people. And it’s backed up by organizations like Mercy Corps holding it together as we have done for the last few years.
Miller: Why is it that your team is headquartered in Jordan as opposed to somewhere in Syria?
Barnes: It’s the challenge of the politics of Syria which is kind of broken up into different parts, some areas of Syria we’re able to access very easily and we can cross borders and work with our teams on the ground. Other parts of Syria, it’s just because the borders are closed, our team can’t get out and we can’t get in. So that’s why we have to work remotely. Jordan is kind of seen as a point where a lot of the coordination for Syria happens. So a lot of the UN Agencies, a lot of the NGOs are based out of Amman. We kind of work from there remotely into Syria.
Miller: So with all this as a context, let’s turn to the earthquake itself. Where were you one week ago?
Barnes: I happened to be in Istanbul and I was traveling through Istanbul back to Jordan and I was asleep and I heard my phone buzzing kind of multiple times. And in my role as country director, when that happens in the night, you know, something’s wrong. So I picked up the phone and started to read messages about an earthquake in Turkey, initially, and then tried to get on the news and see what was happening and take messages. And of course at that time in the night a lot of people were asleep. So we were trying to contact different people. People weren’t responding. Eventually we got through to our security team and they were messaging the team in Northwest Syria to see how they were, but because of the damage of the earthquake, the infrastructure was already taken out– the communication lines, the electricity. So it took a number of hours to actually check in with each of our staff to make sure they were safe. So while that’s going on, you’re kind of trying to figure out how big is this, how significant is this, what are our next steps, what do we need to do?
Miller: At what point, or how quickly, did you realize the severity of this crisis?
Barnes: I think it took probably about an hour, which sounds like a long time, but at the beginning of these things, there’s very little information of how severe [it is]. Is this just, “There was an earthquake, people felt it?” or does this mean damaged buildings, or is this even more catastrophic? And sadly, that’s how it’s turned out. So it kind of unfolds and evolves through the day. And clearly once the images started to come out of Turkey and I saw those images, that’s when I really knew this was major. And then of course I knew that our team in Syria would be seriously affected, but we wouldn’t have those same images because of the challenge of that communication. But clearly [Syria] would be affected in a similar way.
Miller: So how did communication with Mercy Corps employees or contractors in Syria work?
Barnes: So eventually we managed to get through to a few. So we used the internet and used various platforms to contact them. So just throughout the day people managed to get online, it was very sporadic, it would come on, it would cut out again. And so that first day was very difficult to check in with everybody, but thankfully, eventually we did.
The second day, we checked our office and thankfully that wasn’t damaged. We assessed it with an engineer, he said, “No, this is safe to utilize.” We have a generator so we could get the electricity working and we could get the [communications] back up. So from Tuesday onwards, although it still hasn’t been perfect, the communication has been much better. But the first day was very challenging to get an idea of what was happening.
Miller: Once you started to hear, though, from people that you work with, people who I assume you have long term relationships [with] as colleagues. What did you hear about how they and their families are faring?
Barnes: Yeah, I think this is the hard part, these are people who worked with us for many years and sadly we’ve been through a number of crises over those years. Checking in with them first was to hear that they were okay and thankfully… we have 45 staff [and] all 45 were safe. But we started to hear stories that some of their families were trapped in the rubble and sadly some of them were instantly killed and although glad that our team is okay, but obviously hearing about their immediate families was heartbreaking and difficult to hear. And of course you feel frustrated that you can’t be there or you can’t move there instantly.
But we’ve done what we can to support from a distance. People were also confused on that first day. There was a significant aftershock on a great scale, which I think people were not sure what to do, they didn’t know where to go, there was a lot of fear, people didn’t want to go inside buildings and yet the winter weather was horrendous. It has been horrendous. It was a very confusing and a very chaotic time.
Miller: Can you give us a sense for how your overall mission as Syria Country Director for Mercy Corps, how it shifted, I guess almost instantly, on Monday?
Barnes: Yes. So it’s been a difficult week. We’ve been working flat out very, very long days. At the very beginning of this, when I started to see that this is a very significant event, we put together an incident management team. So I call on certain individuals that I know that can function in key roles. That becomes kind of an isolated group. And this is purely to respond to this incident and we kind of re-invent them from everything else that’s going on. So it’s hard for the rest of the team because they don’t know all the details. They have to continue our regular programming in other parts of Syria.
But this team then starts to respond and we need to engage with our Mercy Corps regional teams for the Middle East and we need to engage with the team in Portland as well. And of course, a lot of communication [is] going between various teams across the whole agency and that incident management team is really at the heart of it, managing all of it. And that’s still functioning and we will keep functioning. We will bring in other people as time goes on. But it’s been very intense and all our focus, all my focus for the last seven days has been in Northwest Syria and this response.
Miller: How much of the physical aid, or logistical support, that was stashed somewhere, how much of the things that you had been providing in the past are applicable now?
Barnes: I think that’s a great question, and it kind of demonstrates how bad things were prior to the earthquake. That actually we had prepositioned kits for people who are displaced because of the conflict. People who lose their homes and need somewhere to stay. So, we actually had one 1,700 kits in storage for people in [those] circumstances. And sadly here we are using those kits for this earthquake, but we actually need to scale up quite significantly.
So we’re glad that we have them ready. We did manage to procure some more particularly related to hygiene. So that’s things like soap, toilet rolls, sanitary pads, these kinds of things. But also some shelter kits as well, which help either people build temporary shelters or we can start doing some repairs on some buildings. So thankfully we had some supplies, but we need to scale up a lot more in the coming weeks.
Miller: I can imagine, going back to the political issues - which, I know Mercy Corps, in the past, and in conversations, you’ve been careful to not wade into political issues because you want to be able to just provide the basics in whatever country you’re operating in - but from what you’ve seen so far, is there any chance that this latest shock will somehow lead to more political stability as opposed to the continuation of the fractures that we’ve seen?
Barnes: Yes, there’s a very difficult question. I think the way the response is going, unfortunately, we are actually seeing more politics and game playing at a point where actually people should be prioritizing ordinary Syrians’ lives and responding to what is a major natural disaster. Northwest Syria is this isolated pocket, and it feels like it’s falling through the cracks. And as everybody around this conflict is looking at their political situation and our priority is clearly the people on the ground and providing for them for their basic needs. And we really ask that all international groups focus on that, that we should be coming towards political stability, but I would say, hand on heart, it’s not looking that way.
Miller: What do you think has been most missing in the coverage of the aftermath of this earthquake? Especially from the Syrian perspective?
Barnes: I think we obviously need to be careful of comparing crises and tragedies because clearly, everybody in that region… an earthquake doesn’t go along the lines of borders, it affects everybody. But clearly in Turkey, there’s a lot of media that’s been able to come out, which has been good and it’s highlighted the needs there. But because of the challenges [in the] northwest and the difficulty to access and the difficulty to see on the ground, it’s taken us a week to really get those images, those pictures, [the] sense of the scale of this.
And that means we’ve delayed quite heavily, I think, as an international community to respond, we haven’t really seen that true picture. And I’m concerned about the next few weeks because of that delay, there will be a knock-on effect. We might have difficulties accessing the right supplies if the borders are not working, if the supply chain is broken. And people are sleeping out in the cold. They’re not getting access to clean water. That creates other issues, waterborne diseases, people getting sick, these kinds of things. So that’s the concern now that due to some of the delays, we’re going to actually have more problems going forward. And will people see that? Will that be known by the international community?
Miller: What kind of support from the public do you think would be most helpful right now?
Barnes: Yeah, I think this is a great question and a really important one because I think the one good thing is we’ve really seen people in the public support the response to the earthquake and we’re seeing that more so with Syria maybe than from the donor governments, unfortunately. But the best way to respond is through money. It moves fast. You can donate to an organization such as Mercy Corps or others and we can move that money very quickly. We can buy things locally in Northwest Syria. We need to hire more staff to be honest, we need to double in size for this response and we need to hire people and we can’t do that until we have the cash in the bank, quite frankly, so it’s the fastest way. It’s actually the most cost effective way. So if you want to give that is the most efficient and best way to respond.
Miller: Kieren Barnes, thanks very much.
Barnes: Thanks, Dave.
Miller: Kieren Barnes is Syria Country Director for Portland-based Mercy Corps.
For more on what happened and how the Turkish community in Oregon has been responding, I’m joined by Ozcan Ertem, he is the Secretary of the Oregon Turkish American Association. Thanks very much for coming in.
Ozcan Ertem: Thank you for having me as well.
Miller: The quake happened at about four in the morning in Turkey. So that was the early evening in Oregon time. What were you doing?
Ertem: We were just chatting with friends and all of a sudden we heard that the earthquake hit Turkey. Turkey is quite prone to earthquakes. So we thought it could have been one of these little shocks. But once we started receiving the information, we quickly realized that that could have been the worst disaster the country has ever had.
Miller: As we were hearing from Kieren just now, talking about Syria, communication was a major issue and still not that easy. How were you able to get information from friends or family or loved ones over the last week?
Ertem: I think the very first two days were the most challenging part of this communication. Then especially mobile networks started to work and then we even [started] to see people receiving messages under the rubble. So what we can see is actually the communication was out there. But of course, the broadcasting information, I think it started like two days in, two days off.
Miller: The quake zone, in Turkey alone, stretches more than 200 miles. Can you give us a sense for the scale of the devastation – as you understand it now?
Ertem: I think with all these aftershocks, and we’re talking about like 100 aftershocks, I think we can safely say that the country, the land, [a] piece as big as the state of Oregon moved by 10 ft or so.
Miller: What have you been hearing from Turkish-Americans in the Northwest, say in Oregon or Washington, who have friends or family in the most affected areas?
Ertem: Fortunately we didn’t have [many] friends out there in the region. There is a restaurant owner, one of our friends, he lost his uncle. But apart from that, we haven’t heard of, individually, too many family friends that got trapped. But of course the numbers are so high that you know, eventually we will see that. Maybe not close relatives, but distant relatives will be out there.
Miller: I noted that right now, the official death toll is around 36,000. That’s as of a couple hours ago. What’s your best estimate, right now, for what it’s actually going to truly end up being?
Ertem: I think the official death toll is confirmed that once they are pulled out of rubble, but based on the number of buildings that collapsed, and the way they look and we’re already in the seventh day of rescue operations, the chances are so slim now to rescue someone alive, I’m afraid to see it going beyond 150,000 people.
Miller: As you noted, earthquakes are not new to Turkey. It’s a part of the world, like where we are right now, that’s prone to earthquakes. What does the scale of devastation say, to you, about the country’s level of preparedness?
Ertem: Well, we had a huge earthquake back in 1999. There were new rules, regulations set up at that time. Turkish citizens started to pay taxes for earthquakes. It started well, but I think over the years, we’re talking like 24 years since that earthquake, it’s been kind of slowed down, and the government agencies were not up to that point. So I think still with all these lessons learned, it could have been much much better. It’s especially the first response, like saving people in the first two, three days. That was so slow. We should have had [a] much quicker government, to save people. Miller: What is the Oregon Turkish American Association?
Ertem: Oregon Turkish American Association, or shortly, as we say, ORTA, is a volunteer based nonprofit, non-governmental organization. We are trying to enrich the Turkish Americans within the state of Oregon and Southwest Washington by creating some cultural events, working together. And also, we try to raise little donations to help both the ones who need it, here, in the area or also for educational purposes, sending out some money to Turkey. That’s what we have been doing up until this earthquake.
Miller: So up until a week ago, that’s what you’ve been doing. How did you decide as an organization, the best way to support people in Turkey after the earthquake?
Ertem: Well, of course, the first response was to our members, we’re reaching out to around 180 members, with family members, I would say 500 people. All members wanted to do something. They start collecting in-kind donations, and money. But the first two days, we tried to find out what could be the best way to send out money, and to make it right to the disaster area. And then what is the best way to send out income. So we have to look for it for a while. And then we found a good nonprofit organization, non-governmental organizations also working at the disaster area, which we feel like if we managed to send money to those organizations, they will be the one to use it, to spend it transparently.
Miller: Is the implication there that you got the sense that there were some organizations where your money would be less useful or less directly spent?
Ertem: Yes, we actually wanted money to be spent at the right point, where we wanted to. There are some organizations which might not be using that money the way we wanted to.
Miller: Which organization did you end up choosing, then?
Ertem: There is a nonprofit organization called Ahbap, which eventually started working in the previous disasters. This is an all-volunteer based organization. They set up their office right at the disaster area and they are so open and well-amid social media you can follow it out: how they spend money, how they work. They have already created their roadmap once the rescue efforts are closed and they will start working on the schools and hospitals reconstruction. So this is the organization we felt like we were going to feed and that’s what we’re doing. And I think after seven days we can safely say that we did the right thing.
Miller: How much money have you raised?
Ertem: Our members raised about, I would say, close to $8,000. But then the people here in the Pacific Northwest who know us, start to reach out and say, “Hey, we want to contribute something we want to help, and how can we do that?”
So eventually we, it’s not just ORTA and the Turkish Americans, it’s all about people here. So we say, “This is the way we’re going to use it.” And I think people here like the way we want to do [it], and we start having donations from everyone in this region. So that’s so nice to see how people can come together in a disaster like this.
Miller: Ozcan Ertem, thanks very much for coming in.
Ertem: Thank you for having me. Thank you.
Miller: Ozcan Ertem is the Secretary of ORTA; it stands for the Oregon Turkish American Association. It is based in Portland.
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