‘We’re mourning the losses.’ Turkish and Syrian students impacted by devastation at home

headshot of kayra cetin
Kayra Çetin, who studies business administration, is one of three co-founders of the Turkish Student Association. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

By Cynthia McCormick Hibbert and Sabira Khalili

Northeastern students with family and friends in Turkey and Syria are learning which loved ones survived, who perished and who is homeless following the magnitude 7.8 earthquake that rocked the region Feb. 6.

“My family has been out of their homes since the earthquake struck,” says Alia Salem, 19, a second-year undergraduate student from Syria.

They have been stranded in the streets outside in the cold, says Salem, a Northeastern media and religious studies major with a brother, aunts, uncles, grandparents and cousins in Syria and Turkey.

“I’m really terrified as I’m all the way here,” she says, “And I can’t really do much to help them over there.”

Yunus Bicer, a fourth-year Ph.D. student in computer engineering, says his uncle suffered a broken leg escaping from a building in Turkey with his wife and two children.

One of the adult children, a 23-year-old man, later died from his injuries.

Bicer says he knew the situation was bad when he called and spoke to his sister in the aftermath of the earthquake and found her in tears.

“I thought I should go to Turkey, but I checked the flights because of the emergency situation. Getting there was not an easy thing,” he says.

Northeastern assisting students from Turkey, Syria

A Northeastern assistance organization called We Care has reached out to students from Turkey and Syria, says Khushal Safi, head of international security for the university.

We Care says it helps students facing unexpected challenges in their personal or academic lives.

Safi says Northeastern currently does not have any co-op or international exchange undergraduate students in Turkey or Syria.

Four Northeastern Ph.D. students are in Turkey—three in Istanbul and one in Denizli, he says.

“Fortunately, these areas are far from the epicenter,” Safi says. “The university is actively reaching out to them to help with any assistance they might need.”

Members of Northeastern’s Arab Student Association and the newly formed Turkish Student Association are raising funds and awareness of the devastation wrought by the earthquake.

Student associations seeking to help 

“We’re devastated,” says Kayra Çetin, one of three co-founders of the Turkish Student Association, which is new this semester and has about 25 members.

She and her sister were born in California to Turkish immigrant parents, but she visits Turkey every summer to spend time with family.

Her immediate family is in the Istanbul area and was not directly impacted by the earthquake, but Çetin says she knows of family friends who are living in shelters now.

“We all deeply care about our country and want what’s best for it,” says Çetin, a second-year student majoring in business administration.

“We feel really connected to each other and our people and our culture,” she says.

One of the Turkish Student Association members is on Northeastern’s volleyball team and hopes to set up a table at university athletic events to collect clothes, canned goods and toiletries to bring to Boston’s Turkish embassy for relief effort, Çetin says.

Don’t forget Syria

“I would say our families haven’t been impacted physically, but mentally speaking it has put a strain on everyone in the country,” says Mert Erden, Turkish Student Association co-founder.

“We’re mourning the losses. In our culture we tend to be very tight knit,” says Erden, a second-year student majoring in computer science and business administration whose family is from Samsun, Turkey.

“We also must focus on Syria,” he says. “They are also families that have been massively affected.”

The current exchange rate means every U.S. dollar goes a long way in Turkey, says Doruk Gundem, the third Turkish Student Association co-founder and a second-year student majoring in business administration.

“Every little bit counts, and we mean that from the bottom of our hearts,” Gundem says.

‘Our hearts and minds are there’

Serene Zuhdi, 19, a Syrian student majoring in business administration, says family members in Damascus felt their building shaking though they were far from the epicenter of the earthquake.

“Everyone was out in the streets and all were in panic mode,” she says.

Zuhdi says living in America, her heart breaks for the people of Syria who have experienced war, displacement and water and heat shortages for years, only to have their suffering compounded by the earthquake.

“I honestly felt guilty,” she says. 

The earthquake has affected Turkish people all over the world, says Busra Bakir, 26, a second-year student from Turkey majoring in engineering management.

“Not only my family and friends, but everyone who is from Turkey is affected, no matter in which region they live. Our hearts and minds are there,” Bakir says.

Cynthia McCormick Hibbert is a Northeastern Global News reporter. Email her at c.hibbert@northeastern.edu or contact her on Twitter @HibbertCynthia