The pain was too hard to bear for Tacettin Arici.
Watching the videos of his hometown Kahramanmaraş, the epicenter of the magnitude 7.8 earthquake in southern Turkey, Arici worried about his family. His mother, father and sisters are all there.
He frantically tried to call his relatives when he learned about the quake Sunday night after masses of people fled their homes into the cold elements.
“It is zero degrees Celsius (32 degrees Fahrenheit), there’s no food, no heat, no water,” he said. “It is shocking; you don’t want to believe it.”
Now almost two days after the initial tremor, more than 11,000 people have died as people are trying to rescue those buried in the rubble. Earthquakes continue to roll through Turkey and Syria, with devastating destruction in both countries.
“There is no help,” Arici said, adding that his relatives there told him people are dying in the rubble before rescuers could get to them.
A Turk community in America
Arici now lives in Nutley, New Jersey, with his wife Tuba and two sons, ages 6 and 2. The New York City and North Jersey area is home to the largest concentration of Turks in America, with over 100,000 people, according to Peace Islands Institute, a community organization for Turkish Americans.
Peace Islands Institute executive director Adam Bulent Ozdemir has been fielding phone calls for the past two days from Turkish Americans. This morning, the community learned of the sad news that the parents of a member died in the rubble, Ozdemir said.
People in Turkish communities in the northeast are doing what they can to get a hold of relatives while donating money and buying blankets and clothing to ship overseas, Ozdemir said. The Peace Islands Institute is working with Embrace Relief, or EmbraceRelief.org, to provide financial assistance.
Clifton, New Jersey, resident Filiz Meydan is from the Istanbul area of Turkey, the western corner of the country near Europe. The Istanbul area is not near the epicenter and her parents are safe. But she cannot find her friends in other areas of the country.
“There are many dead. There is a transportation problem and a first aid problem,” Meydan said. “We cannot sleep. We lost many of our friends. We are collecting donations from New Jersey.”
Sleeping in cars
Help is needed in southern Turkey as the survivors are fending for themselves, Arici said. His relatives are sheltering in cars, with one of his sisters telling him that she hasn’t had food or water in the past day. If they find essentials, it goes to the kids.
Arici is heartbroken at hearing about his 8-year-old niece Bethul, so afraid that she would not let go of her mother. As he was talking to his family Tuesday afternoon, a 5.0 magnitude aftershock rolled through.
He feels fortunate that his immediate family has all been located. Others have not been so lucky, unable to track down their loved ones.
The Turks in America are connected through WhatsApp in sharing information, said Arici, 31, who works in information technology.
“It’s a huge community. We’re all trying to figure out how to help each other,” Arici said.
As a parent, Arici hasn’t allowed his own children to watch the news in Turkey. It’s just too heartbreaking, he said.
Arici is finding solace in the large Turkish community in northern New Jersey, with Paterson as a gathering spot for Turks and Syrians. The area of Palestine Way is dotted with Arab businesses, from restaurants to hookah lounges.
Ozdemir is hoping all Americans will open their hearts to the plight of Turks and Syrians impacted by the crisis.
“The best way is to send money,” Ozdemir said, noting non-profits, including Embrace Relief. “And keep us in your prayers.”
Mary Chao is a NYC-based Specialty Reporter at Scripps News. Email Mary.Chao@Scripps.com.