Galway’s Turkish community mobilises aid in response to earthquake

Şahin Akkajun, the owner of Galway restaurant Anfora, is sending supplies to Turkish communities who lost everything in the earthquake.

By Nykole King

Şahin Akkajun (middle) stands in front of a lorry packed with aid supplies to be send to Turkey on Feb 20, 2023.

Şahin Akkajun still remembers the devastation of the 1999 earthquake that hit his hometown in Turkey. 

Akkajun left his home in Northeastern Turkey not long after the magnitude 7.6 earthquake hit. He settled in Galway, where he established the Turkish restaurant Anfora, which grew to two locations in the city. 

Although Akkajun has lived in Ireland for more than two decades, it’s not difficult for him to imagine the situation that survivors in Southern Turkey and Syria are facing after the quake. Their lives changed in an instant. 

“People work for many years, buy a house, happy family living in it. Now everything is gone. Some lose family members, some lose children,” says Akkajun. “You cannot explain these things for a normal person.”

Unimaginable loss

This disaster is estimated to have claimed at least 51,800 lives as of 1 March, with the United Nations Development Programme estimating that 1.5 million people have been left homeless.

Now a month removed from the initial damage of the 7.8 magnitude earthquake on 6 February, the region was hit by another strong quake on 20 February. At that same time, Akkajun was helping prepare relief supplies in packing boxes so it could be sent to Turkey. 

Back in 1999, when the earthquake hit Akkajun’s city in Turkey, he walked village to village handing out food to people as the destruction made it difficult for vehicles to access. In the midst of disaster, Akkajun steps up to help those around him. 

Akkajun and his friend Remzi Ozbiner, the owner of Turk’s Barber Shop on Dublin Road, have used their businesses as collection points for people in Galway to donate news and used items to people who have lost everything in the earthquake. 

The two business owners have spent countless hours in February sorting donations, finding temporary storage spaces, and even hiring trucks out of their own pocket to transport the supplies to Dublin. 

Some of the accepted materials include clothing, diapers, blankets, sleeping bags and heaters.

Overwhelming response

“The response we received it was much more than we expected,” says Mehmet Ege Ersen, the Second Secretary at the Turkish Embassy, in an interview with The Galway Pulse on 6 March.

Ireland has already shipped 100 tonnes of relief supplies to Turkey so far, says Ersen, but there is still 20 tonnes of supplies in storage that they are planning to send. 

Temperatures in the affected region were dipping below 0°C following the earthquakes, making it crucial to get warm supplies to the survivors immediately. 

People in the affected cities lost all their belongings, which is why Akkajun says people will need supplies for the foreseeable future. 

“I don’t think that this is enough,” says Akkajun. “They don’t have a place to wash (their clothes) and wear again. We have to send it from here.”

“It’s not for one day, not for two days, maybe for six months, until summer. That’s why we try to help as much as we can.”

The bags of supplies at one point had filled the second floor of Akkajun’s kebab house, located on Liosban Industrial Estate. But limiting the seating in his restaurant is not a sacrifice, he says, considering the circumstances of those who survived the quake. 

Across Ireland, Turkish communities have rallied together with support from their Irish neighbours. The Turkish Embassy arranged the also received large amounts of donations from volunteers in Cork, Dublin and Limerick. 

Most of the supplies have been placed on pallets and transported by airplanes from Turkish Airlines, as well as by a transport container from the Turkish company Ekol Lojistik.

“During this process, we gathered a lot more than we could send. But now we’ve been able to send a lot more to the effected zones,” says Ersen. 

Keeping hope

Beysa Koç is a postgraduate student at the University of Galway studying childhood speech and language communications. She grew up in Germany but has Turkish heritage and loved ones still in the country. 

Koç says it was difficult to cope, especially while being far away and seeing a delayed response of emergency services helping survivors.

“I remember the first few days I was still hopeful. I see so many people doing something, collecting, donating. Some people flew to Turkey. I saw people doing so much also in Ireland and it just gave me hope. But I also saw people still waiting on day four,” Koç says. 

“If you’re not there you cannot just go drive there and check if they’re ok, and some people didn’t hear something for a week. And really, you don’t know what you can do.”

However, Koç says she is trying to get on with her normal life as the survivors in Turkey and Syria weigh heavy on her heart. 

“I can’t do anything about it at the moment, and I have to, eventually, get on with my life,” says Koç. “But I can still think of them, I can still donate, I can still do as much as I can from here.”

Mobilising aid

Sinan Güler is the office manager at Eğitim İrlanda, a consultancy to support Turkish students pursuing post-secondary education in Ireland. His office worked with the Turkish Embassy to collect and package supplies. 

Eğitim İrlanda were instrumental in amplify information on social media to the Turkish community across Ireland. 

Turkish university students in Dublin were quick to mobilise to support the efforts. Güler says that between 200 and 300 Turkish university students were helping his office with many of them were putting in 12-hour days.

“It might be easier to send money, but if they didn’t do this then they might think about the situation in Turkey and they might feel worse. And while they are trying to help packaging or collecting donations, they feel better and feel that they are helping,” says Güler.

The Turkish Embassy says there are currently no calls for material supplies. There are a number of international aid organisations accepting monetary donations to go towards those affected by the earthquake, including a dedicated bank account through AIB set up by the Turkish Embassy.

For Akkajun, this disaster is a reminder that anyone’s life can change drastically in an instant. 

“It doesn’t matter, our family or your family, or someone’s family. It doesn’t matter. This is the Earth’s problem,” says Akkajun. “We have to help each other. That is the only reason we’re doing this.”

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