IU School of Medicine faculty share personal connections to earthquake devastation in Turkey, Syria
Laura Gates Feb 13, 2023
Relief flooded over Yabrodi when he finally heard his brother’s voice. He and his family were safe—but they had lost everything.
“The whole building started to sway and crack,” Yabrodi said. “In a few seconds, the walls were going down.”
Yabrodi’s brother didn’t have time to grab his cell phone—or anything else—when he fled his home with his wife and two young children. He was grateful to be on the second floor of their multi-story apartment building in southern Turkey. His neighbors from the third floor didn’t make it out before the entire building collapsed.
“It was just an awful scene of people dying and people trying to reach out for others,” said Yabrodi, a native of Damascus, Syria, and associate professor of clinical pediatrics and director of the Pediatric Cardiac Critical Care Fellowship at Indiana University School of Medicine.
The death toll stands at more than 33,000 and rising from two earthquakes just hours apart (magnitudes 7.8 and 7.5 on the Richter scale). Injuries are numerous, and tens of thousands have been left homeless in the middle of winter. Many were already displaced persons as the result of the Syrian civil war, which began in 2011, and lingering hostilities among factions in northern Syria. The regional economy has been depressed for a decade.
As an ophthalmology resident at IU School of Medicine, Damla Sevgi, MD, may be geographically far removed, but her heart is in Turkey. Her family is among those now displaced by the earthquakes.
“I don’t know how long it will take for us to heal—this is a nationwide trauma,” said Sevgi, a native of Adana, Turkey. “There are still thousands of people under rubble. There are not enough corpse bags in the country to put all those bodies in. We will need help for months and years.”
The apartment building where Sevgi grew up was constructed by her uncle’s contracting business, and she believes he built it well. However, it could not withstand the severe shaking which started around 4 a.m. local time on February 6, rendering it unlivable. Sevgi’s father took the family dog with him to stay with relatives on a farm outside the city while her mother and sister went to a second home the family has in Istanbul.
“My family is among the luckiest ones who are uninjured, but no one in the area is really OK,” Sevgi said. “My whole family, all my childhood friends, their families, my teachers, everyone I knew in the first half of my life is affected by this disaster.”
As a physician, her mother needed to return to work quickly to aid the injured. She moved to a temporary shelter with other earthquake victims, lying on a mat on a gymnasium floor. Because the local hospital and its equipment were damaged, she sees patients under a tent.
“She is a family physician trying to help people with chronic conditions who are without their medications,” Sevgi said. “It’s such a big tragedy—30 million people live there—and there are so many kids without parents now and people dying of injuries.”
As a pediatrician, Kamal Abulebda, MD, thinks of the children.
“Many families in Syria have been living in tents for over 10 years now on the borders, and some people who were able to go live in the city in a humble, small home are now back to living in tents,” said Abulebda, a native of Aleppo, Syria, who is an associate professor of clinical pediatrics at IU School of Medicine. “A lot of kids were rescued from collapsed buildings and lost parents and will have to find someone to take care of them. It’s devastating, it’s heartbreaking, but we know people want to help.”
Before the earthquakes, Syrian doctors were already struggling to provide quality care with limited resources. The Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS) is a global medical relief organization that has been working on the frontlines of crisis relief in Syria for years to help equip Syrian physicians.
“These doctors are working with their bare hands—and their life and souls—to help people in Syria,” said Abulebda, who has several friends from the University of Aleppo Medical School still practicing in the region.
Both he and Yabrodi came to the United States for residency training before the Syrian civil war and thought they would one day go back to their home country to practice medicine. The current political and economic climate makes that impossible, so they are doing what they can to help from afar.
They are heartened by many IU colleagues who are asking how to help and sending out donation links to friends and family members.
“Never underestimate any donation,” Abulebda said. “One U.S. dollar is 5,000 Syrian pounds. It can feed a family for a day. That’s a big deal.”
Due to sanctions from the international community, global relief has been harder to get to Syria than Turkey. However, the Syrian government has approved humanitarian aid to be delivered in cooperation with the United Nations, the Syrian Arab Red Crescent and the international Red Cross, according to state media.
Abulebda proudly talks of the resiliency of the Syrian people.
“As little as they have, they’re doing their best to help each other,” he said. “Syria is a very diverse country with many religions, backgrounds, cultures and skin colors, and the Syrian people have always historically lived in a peaceful environment. Despite this being a very heartbreaking crisis, it has revealed a lot of good character of the Syrian people.”
No inhabitants of planet earth are immune to the effects of natural disasters and wars, Abulebda added.
“Those who are fortunate to have families and houses and jobs all over the world, hopefully they will have a sense of empathy with those who don’t have basic needs,” he said.
In Turkey, local aid organizations, working with support from the highly rated Global Giving organization, have thousands of volunteers on the ground building container houses, providing food, clothing, medical supplies and other basic necessities, along with sheltering displaced animals, Sevgi said.
Like in Syria, the American dollar stretches much further to help in Turkey.
“I emphasize that $1 is around 19 Turkish lira,” Sevgi said. “A $5 donation means 13 loaves of bread, seven pairs of socks or two blankets for people suffering there. Every dollar counts.”
Sevgi, Abulebda and Yabrodi all welcome members of the IU School of Medicine to contact them for suggestions on where to donate. In addition, IU School of Medicine has shared other reputable international aid organizations providing earthquake relief in Turkey and Syria.
Want to help?
For those who wish to help, there are several organizations providing international relief accepting donations, including: