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Post-earthquakes, volunteers help Turkish, Syrian people for Ramadan

The Islamic month of Ramadan is marked by fasting and prayer, but observing this year has come with unique challenges in Turkey and Syria.
Posted at 9:26 PM, Apr 18, 2023
and last updated 2023-04-18 21:26:36-04

It's been a little over two months since a pair of earthquakes struck Turkey and neighboring Syria. Relief organizations inside the nation say the recovery has been slow but steady.

"When we saw the news every day, every night, it was like I couldn't sleep. I couldn't work," said Yalcin Firiloglu, a Turkish native.

When a pair of earthquakes struck his homeland of Turkey, Firiloglu made his way home from Germany. His discovery was grim, with bodies still among the destruction.

Using his own money and raising awareness via Instagram, he collected 7,500 euros, connecting with fellow self-funded volunteers along the way. He spent the next few weeks traveling back and forth to untouched areas to purchase tents or collect supplies and goods to bring them back to people unable to travel.

"I bought jackets, underwear, hygienic stuff, water, candy for the kids and babies and toys," Firiloglu said.

More than 50,000 people died in the pair of quakes, and millions were displaced, according to the United Nations.

In the early days after the earthquakes, the Turkish government and president were criticized by journalists for a slow and unorganized response.

Firiloglu says he personally observed aid groups being stopped at the border, told to leave their goods there.

Two months later, Firiloglu says humanitarian groups are busy as ever, but the need remains, especially in villages where people are unable to drive.

"They still have no fresh water, not every family has a tent and they live outside," he said.

Firiloglu says the lack of food and water make it hard to survive, let alone take part in the Islamic tradition of Ramadan, which includes fasting during daylight hours. He says many are observing as best they can or alternating days. 

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"It's rainy, and they have no dry places to stay or to sleep," Firiloglu said. "It's hard to get up at three in the morning, find something to eat, and then go back to sleep and then go on all day without water and without something to eat."

Jamie LeSueur of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies told Scripps News they are working to try to bring a sense of normalcy and providing 30 million meals for Iftar, the traditional time meals are eaten during Ramadan.

But LeSueur also says the reality is staring them in the face, with 2.6 million people living in tents. 

"We're moving into a very hot summer where the average temperature can get into the high 30s, 40 degrees Celsius, and what that means is that people will be either in tents that are going to get very, very hot and/or containers that will also be very, very hot," LeSueur said.

It goes beyond the physical realm with many needing psychological help, too. 

"We've got a lot of people who are staying in tents right outside of a lightly damaged home because they're traumatized," he said. 

Halil Demir, a Turkish-born Chicagoan, also felt compelled to do something. His group set up a tent village to address physical and mental health needs.

"The services that we are providing the village also includes the mental health support we have. We cooked food every night," said Demir. 

His organization, Zakat Foundation of America, is named for a pillar of Islam associated with giving … something he's seen a lot of. 

"I'm very proud of Chicago; I'm very proud of the great people of this nation," Demir said. "We received overwhelming support. I think until now we probably sent, like, 50 to 60 containers of goods, including tents and all this, up to Turkey, so it is still ongoing."

From humanitarian groups to everyday people, many people are driven by the need to do more and be a part. Firiloglu says he plans to return as much as possible, driven by the need to see for himself. 

"I have to go there and help the people in need," he said.