On Feb. 6, a magnitude 7.8 earthquake ripped through southern Turkey and northern Syria. It was the worst earthquake Turkey had experienced in more than 80 years. Tens of thousands of people have died so far.
As the death toll from the massive earthquake in Turkey and Syria continues to rise, humanitarian agencies are scrambling to help millions of people in dire need of aid — especially in Syria, where 12 years of civil war has left 90% of the population dependent on humanitarian aid.
Two Oregon-based organizations have been helping those in need. One from overseas, and one on the ground near the earthquake zone.
The Oregon Turkish American Association has sent thousands of dollars to Turkey. And Portland-based Mercy Corps has been coordinating relief efforts in Syria for years now, since well before this latest disaster.
Kieren Barnes is the Syria country director for Mercy Corps, which has a team of aid workers in Northwest Syria. He joined Dave Miller on OPB’s Think Out Loud from neighboring Amman, Jordan.
The interview has been edited for clarity, grammar and length.
Dave Miller: Can you give us a sense of what life was like in the affected parts of Northwest Syria before this earthquake?
Kieren Barnes: This is probably one of the most vulnerable parts of Syria during the conflict for the last 12 years. It’s an isolated pocket in the Northwest. It’s controlled by different rebel groups, so there’s not a lot of central coordination. Sadly, out of a population of about 4.5 million, there’s about four million that are in need. And sadly, of that total, we have 2.8 million people already displaced, so they don’t have permanent homes, they’re living in temporary shelters and moving multiple times, so it’s a desperate situation. People are heavily reliant on organizations like Mercy Corps and others for things like shelter, like food, access to clean water and just some of the basics just to sustain their lives.
Miller: What have the challenges been in providing that aid?
Barnes: Our team on the ground is actually kind of isolated. We can’t access them as international team members, so all of this is done remotely. We connect with them on a daily basis, but it does make it difficult to coordinate the activities without a centralized government that can help support communication on where the needs are and where to go next. A lot of the time we have to do that amongst each of the NGOs [non-governmental organizations].
Miller: You said out of about 4.5 million people in the region, four million are in need. What exactly do they need?
Barnes: Those four million people need basic supplies: food to eat and clean water. We serve 98 camps and we get water from the boreholes, and we have to truck it across to those camps and distribute it. That’s just one key element. But then other organizations will provide things like health care and medical supplies.
Miller: Why is it that your team is headquartered in Jordan as opposed to somewhere in Syria?
Barnes: It’s the challenge of the politics of Syria which is kind of broken up into different parts. Some areas of Syria we’re able to access very easily and we can cross borders and work with our teams on the ground. In other parts of Syria, the borders are closed; our team can’t get out and we can’t get in. So that’s why we have to work remotely. Jordan is kind of seen as a point where a lot of the coordination for Syria happens. A lot of the U. N. agencies, a lot of the NGOs are based out of Amman.
Miller: Let’s turn to the earthquake itself. Where were you one week ago?
Barnes: I happened to be in Istanbul and I was traveling through Istanbul back to Jordan and I was asleep and I heard my phone buzzing multiple times. And in my role as country director, when that happens in the night, you know something’s wrong. So, I picked up the phone and started to read messages about an earthquake in Turkey initially. Eventually, we got through to our security team and they were messaging the team in Northwest Syria to see how they were. Because of the damage of the earthquake, the infrastructure was already taken out — the communication lines, the electricity. So it took a number of hours to check in with each of our staff to make sure they were safe
Miller: So how did communication with Mercy Corps employees or contractors in Syria work?
Barnes: We used the internet and used various platforms to contact them. So just throughout the day, people managed to get online. It was very sporadic. It would come on, it would cut out again. And so that first day, it was very difficult to check in with everybody. From Tuesday onwards, although it still hasn’t been perfect, the communication has been much better.
Miller: Once you started to hear from people that you work with, what did you hear about how they and their families are faring?
Barnes: I think this is the hard part. These are people who worked with us for many years and sadly we’ve been through a number of crises over those years. Thankfully we have 45 staff, all 45 were safe. But we started to hear stories that some of their families were trapped in the rubble and sadly some of them were instantly killed. We’re glad that our team is okay, but obviously hearing about their immediate families was heartbreaking. We’ve done what we can to support from a distance.
People were also confused on that first day. There was a significant aftershock. I think people were not sure what to do, they didn’t know where to go. There was a lot of fear, people didn’t want to go inside buildings and yet the winter weather was horrendous. It was a very confusing and a very chaotic time.
Miller: Can you give us a sense for how your overall mission, as Syria country director for Mercy Corps shifted almost instantly on Monday?
Barnes: When I started to see that this is a very significant event, we put together an incident management team. So I call on individuals that I know that can function in key roles, and this is purely to respond to this incident. It’s hard for the rest of the team because they don’t know all the details. They have to continue our regular programming in other parts of Syria.
Miller: How much of the physical aid that was stashed — that you had been providing in the past — is applicable now?
Barnes: I think that’s a great question because it kind of demonstrates how bad things were prior to the earthquake. We had prepositioned kits for people who are displaced because of the conflict. People who lose their homes and need somewhere to stay. So, we actually had 1,700 kits in storage for those people in those circumstances. And sadly here we are using those kits for this earthquake, but we actually need to scale up quite significantly.
Miller: I know Mercy Corps in past conversations, has been careful to not wade into political issues because you want to be able to just provide the basics in whatever country you’re operating in. But from what you’ve seen so far, is there any chance that this latest shock will somehow lead to more political stability, as opposed to the continuation of the fractures that we’ve seen?
Barnes: That’s a very difficult question. I think the way the response is going, unfortunately, we are actually seeing more politics and game-playing at a point where people should be prioritizing ordinary Syrians’ lives and responding to what is a major natural disaster. Northwest Syria, as I said, is this isolated pocket, and it feels like it’s falling through the cracks. And as everybody around this conflict is looking at their political situation, our priority is clearly the people on the ground and providing them basic needs. And we really ask that all international groups focus on that.
Miller: What do you think has been most missing in the coverage of the aftermath of this earthquake? Especially from the Syrian perspective.
Barnes: I think we obviously need to be careful of comparing crises and tragedies. An earthquake doesn’t go along the lines of borders, it affects everybody. But clearly, in Turkey, there’s a lot of media that’s been able to come out, which has been good and it’s highlighted the needs there. But because of the challenges of Northwest [Syria], it’s taken us a week to really get those images, those pictures, that sense of the scale of this. We might have difficulties accessing the right supplies if the borders are not working, if the supply chain is broken. People are sleeping out in the cold. They’re not getting access to clean water. And will people see that? Will that be known by the international community?
Miller: What kind of support from the public do you think would be most helpful right now?
Barnes: The best way to respond is through money. It moves fast. You can donate to an organization such as Mercy Corps or others and we can move that money very quickly. We can buy things locally in Northwest Syria. We need to hire more staff to be honest. We need to double in size for this response and we need to hire people and we can’t do that until we have the cash in the bank quite frankly.
Ozcan Ertem is the secretary of the Oregon Turkish American Association which has been collecting online donations and preparing items such as donated clothes and medical supplies to deliver to Turkey.
Miller: What were you doing [at the time of the earthquake]?
Ozcan Ertem: We were just chatting with friends and all of a sudden we heard that the earthquake hit Turkey. Turkey is quite prone to earthquakes, so we thought it could have been one of these little shakes. But once we started receiving the information, we quickly realized that that could have been the worst disaster the country has ever had.
Miller: As we were hearing from Kieren just now, talking about Syria, communication was a major issue and still not that easy. How were you able to get information from friends or family or loved ones over the last week?
Ertem: I think the very first two days were the most challenging part of this communication. Then especially mobile networks started to work and then we even started to see people receiving messages under the rubble.
Miller: The quake zone in Turkey alone stretches more than 200 miles. Can you give us a sense for the scale of the devastation?
Ertem: I think with all these aftershocks, and we’re talking about like 100 aftershocks, we can safely say that a land piece as big as the state of Oregon moved by 10 feet or so.
Miller: What have you been hearing from Turkish Americans in the Northwest, who have friends or family in the most affected areas?
Ertem: We didn’t have many friends out there in the region. We haven’t heard individually of too many family or friends that got trapped. But of course, the numbers are so high that eventually, we will see that, maybe not close relatives, but relatives will be out there.
Miller: I noted that right now, the official death toll is around 36,000. That’s as, as of [Tuesday afternoon]. What’s your best estimate right now for what it’s actually going to truly end up being?
Ertem: I think the official death toll is confirmed once they are pulled out of the rubble, but based on the number of buildings that collapsed and the way they look and we’re already in the seventh day of rescue operations, the chances are so slim now to rescue someone alive. I’m afraid to see it going beyond 150,000 people.
Miller: What does the scale of devastation say to you about the country’s level of preparedness?
Ertem: Well, we had a huge earthquake back in 1999. There were new rules, regulations set up at that time. Turkish citizens started to pay taxes for earthquakes. It started well, but I think over the years, we’re talking like 24 years since that earthquake, it’s kind of slowed down. I think still, with all these lessons learned, it could have been much better. Especially the first response, like saving people in the first two or three days, that was so slow. We should have had a much quicker government [response] to save people.
Miller: What is the Oregon Turkish American association?
Ertem: Oregon Turkish American Association or shortly as we say, ORTA is a volunteer-based nonprofit non-governmental organization. We are trying to enrich the Turkish Americans within or the state of Oregon and north Southwest Washington, by creating some cultural events working together. And also we try to raise little donations to help both the ones who need it here locally in the area or also for educational purposes, sending out some money to Turkey. That’s what we have been doing up until this earthquake.
Miller: How did you decide as an organization the best way to support people in Turkey after the earthquake?
Ertem: All members wanted to do something. They start collecting in-kind donations and money. We found a good nonprofit organization, non-governmental organizations also working at the disaster area. We felt like if we managed to send money to those organizations, they would be the one to spend it transparently.
Miller: Which organization did you end up choosing?
Ertem: There is a nonprofit organization called Ahbap which started working in the previous disasters. This is an all-volunteer-based organization. They set up their office right at the disaster area and they are so open amid social media, you can follow how they spend money, how they work.
Miller: How much money have you raised?
Ertem: Our members raised close to $8000. But then the people here in the Pacific Northwest who know us start to reach out, so eventually it was not just ORTA and the Turkish Americans, it’s all people here.