The Resilient Heart of Türkiye: the Power of Civil Society

    A week after the devastating earthquake struck Kahramanmaraş resulting in the loss and destruction of 10 other cities, I volunteered with some friends to go to Adıyaman and help those whose possessions, lives and memories were lost under the rubble. The Tarlabaşı-located non-profit organisation habitually assisted migrants in Istanbul. However, post-earthquake, they diverted their focus on the quake-ravaged region, delivering much-needed supplies to those affected. 

    As we were getting ready, I received a phone call, “You are Ömer, right? I heard that you are going to the region. We will send undergarments. You must take them with you”. The voice was so determined that I was taken aback. “Brother,” I said, “our car is full to the brim with other donations, I am not sure if we can arrange it.” To which he unwaveringly replied, “Impossible, you have to take it.” The tone brooked no argument, and I found myself scrambling to accommodate the donations. We somehow managed to fit the additional supplies, and our journey began.

    As we embarked upon our trip to Adıyaman, we carried two addresses, each collecting hope amid tragedy. The first was an Astroturf field in the Ali Taşı neighbourhood, and the other was the Adıyaman Stadium. We set out first to the Astroturf field to unload the undergarments. The devastation in the surrounding area was staggering. There were almost no buildings left standing. Another association dedicated to activities, such as opening water wells in Africa and Asia and tending to orphans, had arrived on the scene on the first day of the earthquake. Equipped with a single pair of scissors, they unlocked the Astroturf and set up the area. This field had turned into a vital lifeline amid the chaos. Here the unloaded supplies were sorted and distributed to the neighbourhoods and villages in need. The hot food cooked and served here was a source of sustenance for both the volunteers and the people in the surrounding areas. 

    It was possible to see a similar symphony of compassion and generosity in every corner of Adıyaman. From steaming soup on one corner to food parcel distribution in another, dozens of associations staffed with thousands of volunteers with the logos of associations branded on their backs united their efforts to heal the wounds of the earthquake. Amidst all the well-meaning support, the organisation at Adıyaman stadium stood out above the rest. The Adıyaman stadium, once a symbol of athletic triumph, had been transformed into a towering bastion of hope and healing with the humble initiatives of a handful of volunteers. While different NGOs were unloading their aid and distributing it from here, several medical institutions had set up two health booths in this stadium, providing medical assistance to those in need.

    Adıyaman, a city once bustling with energy, was now a ghost town. The city centre lay empty, the supply chain in tatters, and there was a mass exodus from the city centre to villages and other cities. Adıyaman had become a place of desolation, where both the people who stayed in the town and the enormously grown rural population could barely survive. Yet, the civic initiatives flowing to the city from the rest of the country were tirelessly working day and night to alleviate the suffering of those caught in this emergency.

    The aid organisations in the area were not the only shining examples of humanity’s altruism in the earthquake region as dozens of civilian search and rescue teams worked tirelessly to rescue many people from the rubble. It was impossible not to draw comparisons to the Marmara region’s 7.4 magnitude earthquake on August 17, 1999, in which thousands of buildings collapsed. Back then, AKUT was the sole civilian search-and-rescue team that stood out to save countless lives, hailed as heroes in 1999. Today, after the Kahramanmaraş earthquake, dozens of search-and-rescue teams were scattered in the field. From big international organisations to more local search-and-rescue teams, they all had one goal: to save lives. During our journey from Adıyaman to Kahramanmaraş, we stayed in the same school building with other organisation members. It was incredible to learn that some of the bravest members of this team were individuals rescued from the rubbles during one of the most damaged cities in the 1999 earthquake, Sakarya. From all that we had witnessed, it was evident that Türkiye’s civil society had become much more prepared in the 24 years since 1999. This unwavering commitment to helping others was nothing short of inspiring.

    As I travelled to Adıyaman, Kahramanmaraş and Hatay to contribute to humanitarian aid activities, which the earthquake had also left in a devastating state, I witnessed civilians, associations, and organisations from all over Türkiye dedicated to healing the wounds of the people of quake-hit locals. Seeing people from different political prisms and lifestyles working together to serve their nation was mesmerising.

    This experience validated in practice how vital a vibrant civil society and an organised population can alleviate crises. The ability of individuals to unite with one goal, namely coming up with solutions to assist the state and society, is paramount to mitigating the aftermath of such catastrophic disasters. The Kahramanmaraş earthquake showed that organised civil society has much to offer during times of crisis and that the unity they catalysed can be translated into much-needed benefits for affected communities.

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