“Don’t forget people in Turkey:” Social worker explains how earthquake survivors still need help

“Don’t forget people in Turkey:” Social worker explains how earthquake survivors still need help

Social worker Asli Saban shares her experience of volunteering in the aftermath of Turkey’s devastating earthquake, supporting survivors in disaster areas. Here she tells us how people are still struggling to meet basic needs such as accessing clean water, food and shelter, and about the long-term impact of the earthquake on children, women and people with disabilities.

In the early hours of February 6, a 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck Turkey, destroying large areas in the south of the country and killing over 50,000 people – the deadliest in the country’s modern history. It was later followed by more earthquakes and aftershocks, leaving millions of people homeless, orphaned and struggling to live.

Three months later, communities in the disaster areas are still in need of humanitarian aid. “In the beginning we were very traumatised,” explains Saban. “Now daily life has started again – people forget, they have turned a new page. But unfortunately it was a devastating earthquake, one of the biggest in the world. In the areas affected, where nearly 15 million people lived, more than two million people have migrated to western cities, and millions of others continue to live in the open, in tents inside camps and in prefabricated houses.”

“Although government agencies and civil society organisations are providing urgent assistance, survivors are still not able to meet their basic needs like food, access to toilets or safe areas to wash,” she adds. “The situation is very bad. Experts say the economic impact of the earthquakes will continue to plague the region for years and even decades.”

Children are at greater risk of abuse

Like with any war or natural disaster, women and children have been impacted the hardest. According to the UN, more than 7 million children in Turkey have been affected by the earthquakes, with over 850,000 remaining displaced, their homes and schools damaged or destroyed. 

The Ministry of Family and Social Services is the focal point for unaccompanied and missing children. It has deployed a large number of social workers who visit hospitals and foster centres to identify unaccompanied children and match them with their relatives, foster families and government agencies. It’s a very difficult process for the children who lost their family and homes, explains Saban, with many gaps remaining.

“During emergency relief, many organisations provide food and blankets and organise search and rescue operations,” Saban says. “They are also involved in child protection and helping orphans – but we do not really know what is going on.”

Over 850,000 children have been displaced, their homes and schools damaged or destroyed

The Association of Children and Women First (ACWF), an organisation that offers legal and psychological support to women and children survivors of violence, has been monitoring the situation. They have filed criminal complaints, alleging that some of the children who survived the earthquakes were handed over to radical religious groups who are leading indoctrination centres, putting them at risk of abuse.

The Menzil community, a religious sect that takes its name from a village in the Adıyaman province, has been very involved in the emergency response. In March, they announced that they were “accommodating” 1,100 children who survived the earthquakes, according to the daily Istanbul-based newspaper BirGün.

“Religious organisations are very active in emergency relief, in a positive way,” Saban explains. “They take action on the ground and provide immediate emergency relief – I have no problem with that. But what is very controversial, especially for me as an independent human rights defender and social worker, is that rights-based organisations and government institutions should take action if there are cases of abuse. Right now I can’t fight for these children, because my hands are tied,” Saban says.

Gender-based violence has increased

According to UNICEF, there are 1.6 million people across earthquake-affected areas living in informal settlements and tents. Here access to food, drinking water, shelter, sanitation and medical care are still very much needed.

Women are suffering disproportionately, mainly because settlements do not meet their needs in terms of hygiene and safety. Poorly lit, with no spaces dedicated to women, these are particularly dangerous for young girls and single women. “There is a lot of violence and abuse in the settlements,” Saban tells us. “A few survivors called and told me that girls are getting harassed while going to the toilets. We need private spaces and protection in the settlements for women and children. It’s important to look at solutions from a gender perspective.”

Urgent measures required to support people with disabilities

The earthquake has also had a disproportionate impact on people with disabilities. According to the Global Alliance for Disaster Resource Acceleration (GADRA), a collaboration between organisations committed to disability-led disaster response and recovery, persons with disabilities are 2-4 times more likely to die in disasters. As many as 70 percent of injured earthquake survivors are expected to have a disability, according to a joint Turkish government – UN assessment. People with disabilities require urgent support and are often neglected. Many are not able to reach points of distribution for drinking water, food, medicines, blankets, and other basic needs, and lack disability-related personal care items such as wheelchairs, crutches, canes, and walkers.

“I visited hospitals, and I was shocked. So many people, including children, became disabled overnight,” says Saban. “The cities in Turkey are not accessible. All urban settlements, including in the affected 11 provinces, should be designed for people with disabilities. We also need services and equipment to meet the needs of people with disabilities, like wheelchairs for example, which are very expensive, or safe places, as they are at greater risk of violence. Psychosocial support is also very important to help them deal with trauma. And these services should be provided for free.”

The mental health effects of the disaster 

Everybody in Turkey needs psychosocial support to cope with the horrors caused by the earthquakes, Saban explains. 

“It’s a big trauma. Not only for the survivors, who lost relatives and their homes, or who became disabled, but also for the rescue teams. For physicians, who have been treating survivors. For the volunteers who have been providing humanitarian aid. I also experienced depression. It’s very difficult. The mental health effects of the disaster are deep.”

“I have visited hospitals to learn about their needs, and communicated with mental health providers. Many networks have been created to provide psychosocial support, and I share this information with survivors who might not know of them.”

“Government institutions and civil society organisations are providing psychosocial support services, but many survivors don’t know where to turn to,” Saban says. “These organisations need to strengthen their outreach and the way they disseminate information about their activities. The need for psychosocial support is urgent and critical. And funding is needed to make sure the support is sustainable in the long term.” 

Social media as a tool for emergency response  

Volunteers from across the country have been working tirelessly to provide assistance and support to communities affected by the earthquakes. Many, like Saban, have been helping remotely to avoid using already scarce resources like food and shelter. 

Saban has been volunteering her time helping survivors by providing information management services. She finds organisations that provide help, vets the information making sure it’s accurate and safe, and then forwards it to survivors via WhatsApp.

“I think using technology and social media are very effective in matching service providers with survivors who have urgent needs. People are in shock. They don’t know what resources or services they can access in their area, or if the information is correct,” Saban explains. “Survivors can contact us, sharing their needs and location. We have a WhatsApp group with a large number of volunteers who are constantly communicating with municipalities and organisations to assess the resources they are offering, and informing them of what people need.”

People are in shock. They don’t know what resources or services they can access, or if the information is correct

It’s very important to verify the accuracy of information shared on social media as there are a lot of scams and corruption, she explains. 

“Some survivors were told they would receive food if they sent money to this number, for instance. We have to constantly explain that they should only deal with governmental or official organisations. It’s also the reason why we never share photos or personal details with resource providers – only the location of survivors who need a particular aid.”

Although social media is a powerful tool, Saban is aware that not everyone has access to phones, laptops or a wifi connection – especially people living in tents and informal settlements. But humanitarian and governmental organisations are doing their best to reach them, she says, and volunteers are trying their best.

“With solidarity we can achieve many things. We can help rescue people and animals. We can help settle many in houses or in dormitories. We don’t want to create any fake heroes – people are depressed, they lost everything. All we want is to help and support our country and our people.” 

Survivors of the earthquake have founded an NGO called KIDO Turkiye to support children’s emergency needs. Follow them here

Alia Chebbab

Featured image: City of Adıyaman after 7.8 magnitude earthquake in Türkiye, 15/02/23 / Photo: Mohammad Hossein Velayati / Tasnim News Agency / CC BY 4.0

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