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Hundreds of Affiliates Call on Harvard to Respond to Earthquakes in Turkey and Syria in Open Letter

Hundreds of Harvard affiliates called on the University to support relief efforts in the wake of earthquakes that struck Turkey and Syria last week.
Hundreds of Harvard affiliates called on the University to support relief efforts in the wake of earthquakes that struck Turkey and Syria last week. By Truong L. Nguyen
By Leah J. Lourenco, Crimson Staff Writer

Hundreds of Harvard affiliates signed an open letter asking for the University to raise awareness to earthquakes that struck Turkey and Syria last week, killing tens of thousands of people in the regions.

The letter, addressed to University President Lawrence S. Bacow, has received more than 650 signatures as of Monday night. Written by a group of Turkish Harvard students, alumni, and faculty, the letter calls on the University to raise awareness to the crisis through the Harvard Alumni Association and through social media and publications.

More than 36,000 people have died after a magnitude 7.8 earthquake struck Turkey and Syria on Feb. 6, and tens of thousands are injured. In the days following the earthquakes, undergraduates from the Harvard College Turkish Student Association and Harvard Society of Arab Students raised more than $30,000 in donations for earthquake relief efforts.

The letter called attention to freezing temperatures and damaged infrastructure, which have stalled aid efforts amid the crisis.

“Many are struggling to find safe shelter, water, food, and medication,” the letter reads. “Several rescue organizations and nonprofits have deployed volunteers to the area and are working tirelessly around the clock, but they need all the support they can get.”

The open letter asked the administration to highlight emergency relief nonprofits including the Turkish Philanthropy Funds, the Turkey Mozaik Foundation, the Ahbap Association, and Syria Relief.

Harvard professor of Turkish Studies Cemal Kafadar, who helped to edit the letter, said he hopes for a personal statement from Bacow as well as institutional support from Harvard.

“What they expect is that the University will help through alumni associations, through its media, positions, or connections — help us disseminate the message and somehow indicate that there is an institutional support behind it,” Kafadar said.

Kafadar also noted that Columbia University President Lee C. Bollinger offered condolences in a statement last week, while Bacow has remained silent following the earthquakes.

Harvard spokesperson Jason A. Newton confirmed that the University received the letter, but he declined to comment on the signatories’ requests.

Miray Topay ’06 wrote in an email that she helped to draft the open letter with the goal of garnering support for a crisis she described as “one of the worst disasters in the world in the last 100 years.”

“I can attest to the fact that the Harvard alumni group is an incredible one — caring, connected and has an ability to drive great, positive change in the world,” Topay wrote. “We are simply hoping that an outreach to this amazing group is possible through HAA.”

Ramin A. Isayev, a 2001 graduate of the Harvard Kennedy School and a member of the Harvard Club of Turkey, said he signed the letter with the hope of a favorable response from Bacow.

“This is quite a big human tragedy and we shouldn’t stay aside. President Bacow, he has repeatedly demonstrated that he’s a man of the best values, a compassionate person,” Isayev said.

Ilay R. Ors, who holds a Ph.D. from the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, said she signed the letter after receiving it from Harvard’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies. Ors specifically pointed to the cultural impact of the earthquakes, emphasizing that the affected region was home to “many different faiths” and “religious, ethnic, cultural groups in the area.”

“Definitely the worst earthquake in maybe 100 years that devastated an entire region, a region of immense historical significance and cultural heritage,” Ors said. “So all these have been lost, in addition to something in the tens of thousands of lives, which is the most unfortunate immediate consequence of the earthquake.”

Ors added that the letter will bring awareness to fundraising organizations that are working to help those affected by the earthquakes.

“This letter is really representing a group that supports — that donations would find a healthy direction and a good outcome and an effective outcome so that they can really reach the people that need,” Ors said.

Topay said in addition to donating, Harvard students should reach out to peers from Turkey and Syria to offer support.

“Currently, I can assure you, your Turkish and Syrian friends are not OK. They have all been impacted negatively by this event — some may have lost people they know, or their family knows,” Topay wrote. “If you see them in the dining hall or one of your classes – please check in with them, ask them how they are.”

“Show that you care – maybe make a donation or post a donation link on social media. It will go a long way to show them that you care,” she added.

—Staff writer Leah J. Lourenco can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @Leah_Lourenco.

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