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Harvard Students Praise Undergrad Relief Efforts, Criticize Lack of University Response to Earthquakes in Turkey and Syria

Dozens gather on the steps of Memorial Church in last Thursday night vigil for the victims of last week's 7.8 magnitude earthquake in Turkey and Syria.
Dozens gather on the steps of Memorial Church in last Thursday night vigil for the victims of last week's 7.8 magnitude earthquake in Turkey and Syria. By Sophia C. Scott
By Nia L. Orakwue and John N. Peña, Crimson Staff Writers

When Nehir Toklu ’25 first heard about the earthquakes that struck Turkey and Syria, she was unaware of their magnitude or the extent of the damage they had caused.

Toklu heard the news from her sister, who called her from her home city of Diyarbakir, located nearly 200 miles from the epicenter of the magnitude 7.8 earthquake. Toklu said she knows people who have died in other cities but added it was fortunate her immediate family was not hurt.

“Everyone in Turkey immediately knew that it was going to be terrible,” she said. “It just feels so real and unreal at the same time.”

Ratip “Emin” Berker ’22-’23, who had been in Turkey for two months prior to the earthquake, landed in the U.S. just 30 minutes before the earthquake hit on Feb. 6.

“Although we knew the magnitude of the earthquake, it was really hard to estimate the magnitude of the damage done,” he said. “When I slept and woke up the next day, that’s when I realized how bad it was.”

Berker said his family lives far from the epicenter and did not know about the earthquake until he called to check on them. Since then, Berker’s family has joined the ongoing relief efforts in Turkey, helping relocate the hundreds of thousands of people who have been displaced by the earthquake’s damage.

Toklu, a member of the Harvard Turkish Students Association, said it has been difficult for her and other Turkish students to be so far from home and “completely aware” that life has stopped in Turkey.

“It’s strange to be far away from everything that’s going on there, and having to continue with our normal daily lives when we have not really gotten the chance to grieve,” she said.

“I think we all feel a certain amount of guilt for being here, but I’m also happy that I’m here because I feel like with everything that we’ve done here with collecting funds and stuff, I think we all have done more than we could have if we were there,” she added.

The Office of the Muslim Chaplain and Memorial Church sponsored a vigil for victims of the earthquakes on Feb. 16, and the Harvard Turkish Student Association and Harvard Society of Arab Students have collected more than $30,000 in donations through fundraising campaigns for relief efforts in Turkey and Syria.

Berker, a former TSA president, said he “wouldn’t have imagined” the scale of donations the fundraising campaigns have received, attributing their success to the organizing efforts of Turkish, Kurdish, and Syrian students on campus.

“A lot of them worked really, really hard for days and hours to raise funds and send it to Turkey as fast as we could to help the earthquake survivors,” he said.

Berker described the individual response from non-Turkish and non-Syrian students as “overwhelmingly heartwarming,” calling it something he will “never forget.”

Despite the outpouring of support within and outside the Turkish and Syrian communities on campus, Toklu said she found the University’s response to be “quite late” and “slightly underwhelming.”

Following a lack of a university-wide response, more than 840 Harvard affiliates signed an open letter addressed to President Lawrence S. Bacow urging Harvard to raise awareness about the disaster, encouraging the University to send emails linking to support organizations and publicizing them on the school’s official social media platforms.

Berker, who called the University’s response “asymmetric” and “skewed,” said an email to Harvard affiliates acknowledging the earthquake would have been “much more appropriate” and could have fueled donation efforts and awareness.

“I do think that sometimes the magnitude of the response it gives to different catastrophes around the world is not perfectly in sync with the magnitude of the catastrophe itself,” he said.

University spokesperson Jason A. Newton declined to comment on student criticisms.

Toklu acknowledged that the effects of the earthquakes will “be a problem for months,” but said she is happy about the support the Turkish community has received.

“The losses are irreversible and it’s scary, but hopefully the things we do at least be of sufficient help for someone somewhere,” Toklu said.

Correction: February 23, 2023

A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that University spokesperson Jonathan L. Swain declined a request for comment. In fact, University spokesperson Jason A. Newton declined the request for comment.

—Staff writer Nia L. Orakwue can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @nia_orakwue.

—Staff writer John N. Peña can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @john_pena7.

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