Julia Nagel/Sun Photography Editor

Last month, during a vigil for the victims of the Turkish and Syrian earthquakes, students left flowers and a message board by the Ezra Cornell statue.

March 13, 2023

Turkish and Syrian Students Raise Awareness for Devastating Earthquakes

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Following a series of earthquakes that struck Turkey and Syria a month ago — leading to a total death toll of more than 50,000 as of March 8 — students and faculty on campus have come together to raise awareness and funds for those affected in the region. 

“To put the span of the disaster into perspective, think about it as if everywhere from Paris and Amsterdam were completely destroyed. Or New York City to Washington, D.C.,” said Selina Balcı ’26 in her speech at a Turkish Student Association fundraiser on Feb. 18. 

For some members of the Cornell community, the earthquake has impacted friends and family abroad. 

“I say my family has been affected because they lived in the area that got destroyed. But the reality is the family of everyone in this room who is Turkish and Syrian got affected,” Balcı said at the fundraiser. “We Turkish people see the entire country as [our] family — one that has been struck by an immense tragedy.” 

The Office of the Vice Provost sent out a message of support to Turkish and Syrian students on Tuesday, Feb. 7. 

Signed by Vice Provost for Graduate Education Kathryn J. Boor, Dean of Students Marla Love and Vice Provost for International Affairs Wendy Wolford, the email was sent to students who are from Turkey and Syria. Some Turkish and Syrian students felt that the response should have been sent to the entire Cornell community to reflect the urgency and scope of the situation. 

“We had to write to the administration to send out a support message to students that maybe we cannot reach,” said Faculty Advisor of the TSA Prof. Banu Ozer-Griffin, near eastern studies. “It’s terrible to feel alone at these moments.” 

Wolford sent out a campus-wide email regarding the tragedy on Feb. 14, more than a week after the earthquakes.

“We were expecting a public message from Cornell to every single student,” said Taylan Ercan ’25, president of the TSA. “We had also been in contact with friends from other colleges, and we learned that other colleges were raising all this money, but Cornell hadn’t done anything yet.”  

Ozer-Griffin similarly felt frustrated with the University’s response time.

“I’m thinking they just didn’t understand how devastating it was that we just lost 10 cities. And there was nothing from anyone for a week,” Ozer-Griffin said. “And then, after a week, we started gathering together because we were all in shock.” 

The first event that brought Turkish and Syrian community members together was a support group on Wednesday, Feb. 15 in Mann Library. 

On Saturday, Feb. 18, the Arab Student Association, Muslim Educational and Cultural Association, TSA and International Students Union joined forces to organize an Earthquake Disaster Relief Fundraiser

According to Ercan, the fundraiser raised over $8,000 for the Ahbap Foundation, a Turkish mutual aid group. 

Ercan also noted that the TSA reached out to connections at University of California, Berkeley, where students worked with Google and Amazon to match the original funds raised at Cornell. 

“So $8,000 became $16,000,” said Ercan. “[Berkeley students] sent it back to us, and we sent it to Turkey.”

While the event was successful in its fundraising efforts, some took note of the larger issue of the University’s apparent lack of participation. 

“The crowd was mostly people from the affected region,” Ozer-Griffin said. “There weren’t many Cornell students there [who weren’t from the region affected by the earthquake],” 

The TSA also hosted a vigil walk on Monday, Feb. 20. The vigil began on Ho Plaza and participants walked to the Arts Quad while holding carnations to honor the victims of the tragedy. On the Arts Quad, Prof. Esra Akcan, architecture, and others discussed the disaster.

“During the same time, we also heard there was another big earthquake in the area,” Ozer-Griffin said. “It was very devastating because people started shaking and wondering about their families in the area.”

Ultimately, Ozer-Griffin emphasized the importance of simply reaching out to those who may have been affected by the earthquake.

“You don’t have to do anything but just ask,” Ozer-Griffin said. “I know Cornell students may be busy or may not be aware of it, but if you have [been made aware], just ask people from the affected region how they are.”