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McGill Mourns Turkey-Syria Earthquakes

Turkey and Syria hit by one of the strongest earthquakes in over 100 years

Content warning: injury and death

On Monday, February 6, around 4 AM, one of the strongest earthquakes in over 100 years hit Turkey and Northern Syria. The deadly power of its 7.8 magnitude was quickly followed by another 7.5 magnitude earthquake in the early afternoon, and 100 powerful aftershocks were felt throughout the day. According to the United States Geological Survey, it was one of the strongest earthquakes to hit the region. Tremors were felt as far away as Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan and Israel. Four days later, the death toll had reached 20,000 casualties, with 17,406 deaths reported in Turkey and 3,317 in Syria. Death tolls are predicted to keep rising in the upcoming days as rescue teams operate under difficult conditions. This catastrophe hit an already fragile region, as Turkey faces a longstanding economic crisis and Syria undergoes one of the world’s most persistent humanitarian crises. At a greater scale, the McGill community is also impacted as student groups organize campaigns to contribute relief to Turkey and Syria. 

Where did the earthquakes hit, and why were they so deadly?

The first earthquake in Turkey and Northern Syria was classified as “major” on the Richter magnitude scale and broke along 100km (62 miles) of the fault line. An earthquake is caused by the friction of adjoining plates (in this case, the Arabian moving northwards toward the Anatolian plate) until pressure builds up and one plate suddenly causes the surface to move. Two major fault lines trigger shocks on a regular basis in the region. However, larger quakes are less frequent, as Professor Joanna Faure Walker, from the Institute for Risk and Disaster Reduction at University College London, tells BBC: “only two in the last 10 years have been of equivalent magnitude, and four in the previous 10 years.” Although scientists usually know where earthquakes might happen using historical records and geological measurements, it is more difficult to estimate when they will occur because the forces that cause them to happen operate slowly over a vast area, yet with concentrated effects over a narrow region. Nevertheless, their force can destroy lives and cities in minutes. Although building quality is supposedly controlled and enforced by a building code, standards are not always respected. The fault rupture caused the collapse of nearly 5,700 buildings in Turkey, which was particularly damaging given the region’s high population density.  In Syria, Bill McGuire, a volcanologist at University College London, said to Al-Monitor that “many structures have already been weakened by more than a decade of war.” 

What are the conditions in Syria?

Syria has been destabilized by the civil war that has been ongoing for over ten years, creating a chronically underfunded humanitarian emergency. According to the UN, nearly 70 per cent of the Syrian population required humanitarian aid before the earthquake. The earthquake caused widespread damage in northern Syria, including the last rebel-held holdout in the northwest. Within these regions, many people have been displaced from other parts of Syria, many live in camps, and four million depend on international humanitarian assistance. Still, much of the emergency aid from the international community arrived from one border crossing in Turkey, which was heavily damaged by the earthquake. The first United Nations aid convoy crossed into northern Syria on Thursday. International sanctions have also been straining the country’s economy, as the country faces widespread poverty and food shortages; about 90 percent of Syrians live below the poverty line. Moreover, the geopolitical and domestic political situation likely increases the risk of unequal aid access and assistance to Syria since the West doesn’t recognize Bashar Al-Assad’s leadership. Most Western governments will channel their resources towards the UN and international humanitarian support organizations rather than provide direct support. The international community has called to relax some of the political restrictions on aid entering north-west Syria. Currently, with the support of Russia at the UN, Assad’s government allows aid to enter through only one border crossing. The Syrian Association for Citizens Dignity argues that all borders should be opened on an emergency basis. The Guardian highlights that the recent earthquakes in Syria have intensified a humanitarian crisis that is testing the ability of the international community to come together and respond. Despite existing divisions caused by the war in Ukraine and conflicts in the Middle East, it is critical for nations to set aside their differences and prioritize aid for those in need, they argue.

What are the conditions in Turkey?

Turkey’s quickly-rising death toll doubles that of Syria and has further destabilized the region. Turkey has been facing a profound economic crisis, with an inflation rate of about 80 per cent last year (as compared to 6.3 per cent in Canada). Such an economic situation has exacerbated food insecurity in the region, with about 70 per cent of those surveyed by Yonëylem Social Research Centre in Turkey unable to afford food. Although the economic costs are still not fully clear at this time, the United States Geological Survey estimates that it could rise up to 10 per cent of Turkey’s GDP. The hundreds of kilometres of damage and millions of people affected could “completely reset” Turkey’s economy and politics, said Atilla Yesilada of Global Source Partners. A day after the quake struck, Erdogan’s opposition parties and residents in damaged areas criticized the weak and slow governmental response. The upcoming presidential election on May 14 will be a test of President Erdogan’s ability to manage the crisis in the aftermath of the quakes and cooperate with other countries. The perception that the government is not effectively addressing the disaster or allegations of non-compliance with building codes could harm the incumbent’s chances in the election. The opposition also emphasizes the importance of the government in providing aid without discrimination to the affected regions, which include Kurdish communities and Syrian refugees. 

How to help

The recovery process after a disaster has various stages. The initial response involves search and rescue, emergency medical care and other critical needs. Logistics, such as access to damaged areas, often pose a greater challenge than funding at this stage. Secondary emergencies can also result in further casualties if medical care and supplies are not available. In the long term, donations play a crucial role in helping disaster victims rebuild their homes and lives. Here at McGill, the Turkish Students’ Association (TSSM) provides both resources and support for victims and their communities. They will be hosting a second round of supply donations this week, which will be published on their Instagram account. The McGill Syrian Students’ Association (SSA) is also raising funds to be delivered to trusted local volunteers on the ground. E-transfers will be accepted to Raised funds will be directed to most affected regions and then be used to buy blankets, food, clothes and supplies on-site. Updates and follow-ups on their fundraiser can be found on their Instagram.

Within the McGill Community

Both the SSA and TSSM will organize meetings and aid assemblies in the upcoming weeks to offer support and answer questions. In an interview with Sarah Al-Ani, VP Advisor for SSA, she emphasized the importance of the Syrian community at McGill: 

“Although there are only about 48 new Syrian students that were accepted to Mcgill this year, we have around like 900 to 1000 followers, and we have some events that bring 400 students. A lot of us moved here, there is a large community. It’s just maybe a lot of them aren’t aware of our club or aren’t aware of what we do. ”

Although it may be difficult for a student’s club to reach the greater community, she explains the solidarity that exists among the greater student’s community:

“Even if a friend of mine is not Syrian, they could come to this event or even if someone is not from Turkey, they’ll come to Turkish events. So I feel like even though someone is not Syrian, they feel for it. There is also a large Arabic community. We all feel the hardship that’s happening.” 

Although McGill itself has yet to make a statement about the situation, she explains how raising awareness and knowledge is crucial to grieving students, especially during the exam period, and encourages impacted students to reach out to professors for accommodations. Nevertheless, Sarah points out the important role that McGill could play now: 

“McGill has such a large platform. They have TikTok. They have Instagram. They have Facebook. So for them to use their platform to help us shows their support, shows that they’re allies with us”.

In the meantime, you can always contact the SSA and the TSSM for any further questions or concerns.