At Elliott School Teach-In, Speakers Describe Devastation in Aftermath of Earthquakes in Turkey and Syria

The panel shared firsthand accounts of the crisis facing millions of people in the region and ways to help those displaced by the disaster.

February 22, 2023

Elliott School virtual teach-in

Virtual panelist: Top left: Attiya Ahmad (left) and Ilana Feldman; top middle: Maryam Deloffre; top right: Nimet Kıraç; bottom left: Katty Alhayek; bottom right: Dilan Okcuoglu. (Jordan Tovin/GW Today)

Nimet Kıraç, B.A. ‘15, is one of the thousands of people unable to return to their homes in Turkey after two massive earthquakes hit the southern part of her country and northern Syria. A freelance, multimedia journalist in Turkey, Kıraç has been staying in a hotel while reporting on the disaster for The New York Times.

“We are still afraid to go back into our homes,” Kirac told a group of students last week during a virtual visit for a teach-in about the impact of the earthquakes hosted by the George Washington University Elliott School of International Affairs.

She was joined on the panel by Maryam Deloffre, associate professor of international affairs in the Elliott School and the director of the Humanitarian Action Initiative at GW; Ilana Feldman, professor of anthropology, history and international affairs at GW; Katty Alhayek, an assistant professor in the School of Professional Communication at The Creative School and a faculty member in the Yeates School of Graduate Studies at the Toronto Metropolitan University; and Dilan Okcuoglu, a non-resident visiting fellow at the City University of New York. The teach-in was organized by the Institute for Middle East Studies and co-hosted by the Humanitarian Action Initiatives.

Kıraç, who earned a degree in journalism from the School of Media and Public Affairs, said the scene in the region is grim as millions of people have been displaced in the dead of winter and left without resources. She has visited the cities in Turkey most impacted by the earthquake and said it looks like a bomb was detonated in the areas.

“I've never been through anything as hard as this before. I believe millions of Turkish people share this sentiment with me today,” Kıraç said. “The days are mixing into each other. There are still people under the rubble, and the search and rescue efforts are ongoing. This is an unfolding tragedy. A devastation I've never seen before. Not in Ukraine, not in the Taliban’s Afghanistan. I've never seen something as destructive as this.”

More than 46,000 people lost their lives in the disaster, according to the Associated Press.  

Kıraç said thousands of children were orphaned and are currently alone on the streets.

“The people who survived the quake don't know what awaits them. They're in tent camps right now, or they're still out in the streets. They are too desperate to consider themselves lucky that they are alive,” Kıraç said. “Many of the people who survived lost family members, friends, people they knew, their cities, their memories and parts of their identities are gone with the devastation.”

She said the international community needs to help the people of Turkey and Syria get emergency resources, including food assistance, hygiene products and housing.

“People are traumatized. They are shocked and very afraid. It is such a pain to see the cities that I love, that have so much cultural and historical heritage, destroyed,” Kıraç said.

Deloffre explained the earthquakes were particularly devastating because they hit a region already facing a lot of hardship.

Deloffre said before the earthquake, the situation in northwest Syria was rapidly deteriorating due to a decade-long conflict. People in the area faced food insecurity, a collapsing healthcare system, a lack of access to safe water and poor sanitation. Those factors ultimately led to a cholera outbreak in Syria.

"While there was already a humanitarian presence in the area, including both local and international groups, the earthquakes crippled critical infrastructure, warehouses, coordination centers and the supply chains necessary to organize deliveries of aid into Syria,” she said. “The logistical backbone of the UN aid operation into northwest Syria is headquartered in Gaziantep,Türkiye, which was severely damaged by the earthquakes."

Professors Feldman and Alhayek both also underscored how the earthquakes are compounding a region already hard-hit by multiple conflicts and crises.  

Deloffre described the current situation in Syria as a crisis on top of a crisis. Deloffre encourages anyone passionate about helping the people of Turkey and Syria to donate funds, resources and pressure government officials to deliver more aid to the region.

Okcuoglu said more than 13 million people are impacted by this crisis which is the deadliest one the region has experienced in the past century. “For those of us who have been in warzones, looking at the devastation, we would say it resembles a warzone,” Okcuoglu said.

She said Turkey does not have sufficient resources to handle the situation or cope with the crisis.

“People’s frustration and a sense of helplessness are turning into anguish,” Okcuoglu said.

While it seems daunting, she said some steps can be taken now and in the long run to help the impacted region.

“We must adopt humanitarian ethics and ethical principles, and it has to be practice oriented. We can do things like putting pressure on the government to allocate more resources for risk mitigation,” Okcuoglu said. “Now, we can also work on fundraising efforts to help those in need.”

The GW Turkish Student Association suggests donations can be made to organizations found here.