Chicago-area man mourns loss of 100 relatives in Turkey earthquake – Chicago Tribune newstrendslive

Mehmet Deniz got a call from his brother back home in southern Turkey a few weeks ago, who told him “the whole city collapsed.”

“My brother called right when the earthquake was happening because he knew the phone lines would go down and they would lose service,” he said through a translator. “When we were talking, I could hear the buildings, the sound of buildings collapsing. I was really scared.”

Deniz couldn’t sleep that night after the phone call, he said, and it hasn’t been easy since.

“It was really bad,” he said. “I mean, when I wanted to sleep, I didn’t want to wake up again.”

The city where his older brother called from, Antakya, was devastated by an earthquake in Turkey and Syria on Feb. 6. Tens of thousands have died and hundreds of thousands have been left homeless since the 7.8 magnitude quake affected 10 provinces in Turkey that are home to some 13.5 million people, as well as a large area in northwest Syria that is home to millions.

Antakya was among the areas most affected by the quake the first time, but a new 6.4 magnitude earthquake centered in the Hatay province, where Antakya is, hit Feb. 20 and caused even more death and destruction.

All of Deniz’s family is in Turkey, he said. They live in Sarıbük, Deniz’s native village about 26 miles outside of Antakya. He said about half the village, with some 250 households in all, is made up of his relatives. Not only is he one of 11 siblings — nine girls and two boys, he said, ranging from his 34-year-old brother to his 16-year-old sister — Deniz said he has a number of aunts, uncles, cousins and more extended family back home.

Mehmet Deniz sits in a hallway at Harper College on Feb. 27, 2023, in Palatine. Deniz, originally from Turkey, is taking English classes at the college.

Several family members go to Antakya on the weekend to visit the city and his brother was there with his wife and kids when the first earthquake hit.

“When the earthquake happened, my brother fell down,” Deniz said. “Then, with his wife and kids, they evacuated the building they were in, and then the building collapsed. They barely escaped.”

After the first earthquake, Deniz said he wasn’t able to get in touch with any of his relatives in the village. His brother returned to Sarıbük and found the village had also been somewhat affected by the quake, but thankfully, their mother, father, siblings and other family members there were OK.

Deniz later learned that about 100 of his relatives outside of his immediate family had died, and there are still more who Deniz and his family haven’t been able to reach, he said. The relatives who died were in Antakya for the weekend when the earthquake hit.

“We found out that 50 of them were dead, we didn’t know yet about the others,” he said. “We didn’t know if they were also alive or not. Now I know, 100 of my relatives have died.”

Displaced residents at a tent camp established in downtown Antakya, Turkey, on Feb. 15, 2023. Rescue efforts were still underway in hundreds of buildings for survivors of the magnitude-7.8 earthquake and its aftershocks.

He said the family members he lost were between the ages of 2 and 70, and many were his cousins, aunts and uncles.

“We grew up together,” he said. “We were always together because everyone lived in the village. When there wasn’t food in our house, we would go and eat at their houses. We were really close.”

Deniz said he is thankful his immediate family members are alive, though “they are in a really bad situation and are sleeping outside” in tents.

“I’m always waiting for bad news, like I don’t want to, but I’m always waiting,” he said. “I’m really tired.”

Antakya, known as Antioch in ancient times, was famed for thousands of years as a meeting place of civilizations and revered by Christians, Muslims and Jews. It has been repeatedly destroyed by earthquakes and rebuilt over history. The destruction in Antakya this time was nearly total. Much of the city is rubble. What’s still standing is too unsafe to live in. Almost everyone has left. Residents fear it will be a long time before it recovers, and that its unique historical identity may never be fully restored.

Deniz, 30, came to Chicago in 2019 from Turkey for an English course with Kaplan International, he said. He lived in a dorm at the American Islamic College in Uptown and also worked as a chef at Gundis Kurdish Kitchen in nearby Lakeview for eight months before the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020, he said, and “everything closed down, and I couldn’t go anywhere.”

The restaurant also closed, so he eventually enrolled in classes at Harper College in Palatine and moved to the northwestern suburb, where he has been studying and living since. He also said he has since gotten a green card.

Deniz said Harper College has been providing him with resources since the earthquake, like mental health support. The friends that he has made there have also been supporting him, he said.

Though Deniz was born and raised in Sarıbük, he said he attended high school and college in Istanbul.

Mehmet Deniz, center, attends a vigil for the victims of the earthquake in Turkey and Syria at the Turkish American Society of Chicago in Mount Prospect on Feb. 9, 2023.

He hasn’t been back to Turkey since coming to the U.S. in 2019, he said, and doesn’t know when he’ll be back or next see his family.

In the days following the earthquake, communities around the world reacted by collecting supplies, fundraising, holding prayers and more. The greater Chicago area was no different. The Turkish American Society of Chicago held a vigil Feb. 9 in Mount Prospect where about 100 people gathered. A number of local nonprofit and interfaith leaders spoke. In partnership with the nonprofit Embrace Relief, TASC has helped raise over $1 million, closing in on its goal of $1.5 million.

The Mosque Foundation in Bridgeview raised and disbursed $700,000 thus far for relief efforts in Turkey and Syria, according to one of the mosque’s partners, the Chicago chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

The Bridgeview-based Zakat Foundation of America is also collecting funds for its emergency response teams, which are on the ground providing relief and aid to earthquake survivors.

Gulce Gavaz, left, of New York, and her daughter, Mevla Gavaz, of Norwood Park, wipe away tears while attending a vigil to pray and take action for the victims of the earthquake in Turkey and Syria.  The vigil took place at the Turkish American Society of Chicago in Mount Prospect.

A week after the Chicago-based Turkish American Cultural Alliance started asking for donations, the organization had to put a pause on the fundraising, citing logistical issues. Vildan Gorener, president of TACA, said it received 10,000 donations and had 100 volunteers sorting through them. The organization encourages monetary donations and medical supplies.

In a letter to donors, Gorener wrote, “We are so thankful. Now, Chicago feels more like home to me.”

TACA has been collaborating with the Turkish Consulate in Chicago and Turkish Airlines to send supplies. Turkish Airlines said apart from sending goods to Turkey, they also brought in search and rescue teams to the disaster areas affected by the earthquakes.

The airline put out a statement on Feb. 17 that said it brought in over 238,000 search and rescue personnel and evacuated more than 230,000 citizens in the disaster areas, all free of charge.

The airline also was able to carry in over 15,000 tons worth of aid including food, medicine, generators and hygiene kits.

Abbott Laboratories announced a $1.5 million commitment in aid to Turkey on Feb. 10. The Chicago-area medical equipment and health care company will provide grants for basic supplies, medicine, medical supplies and personal protective equipment.

Suzanne Akhras is the founder and executive director of the Syrian Community Network, a local nonprofit formed in 2015 to welcome Syrian refugees to the Chicago area and advocate for their resettlement in the U.S. Akhras said she immigrated to the U.S. from Homs, in central Syria, as a child with her parents in 1982 and has been settled in Chicago ever since.

She said some of her extended family and her in-laws felt their buildings and beds shaking for several minutes, and they felt the aftershocks of the earthquake as well, but luckily, Homs was not devastated and everyone she knows was OK.

People pray for the victims of the earthquake in Turkey and Syria during a vigil at the Turkish American Society of Chicago in Mount Prospect on Feb. 9, 2023.

When she learned of the quake, Akhras said she was “in shock and disbelief.”

“It feels like a crisis within a crisis,” she said about the earthquake hitting as Syria had already been struggling on other fronts. “I couldn’t believe what was happening.”

She said she and the team at Syrian Community Network have been reaching out to families locally and offering support services.

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“If you need mental health support, if you need help, we’re happy to do what we can and provide resources and referrals,” she said, explaining that responding to social-emotional challenges is sometimes equally as important.

Akhras said her husband, Dr. Zaher Sahloul, is the president and founder of the local nonprofit MedGlobal. Sahloul planned to travel to southern Turkey last week with a group of doctors and health care workers to offer support. The team members planned to take medical supplies with them to provide aid.

Sahloul and a team of health care workers also traveled to Ukraine last year at the height of the country’s conflict with Russia.

Deniz said the outpouring of relief efforts globally has left him with some sense of hope and unity.

“This isn’t just about Turkey,” he said. “I’ve seen that this has affected the whole world, and the whole world cares about it. I want to thank every country for helping and not leaving us alone. I don’t feel lonely.”

Tribune’s Richard Requena and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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