For the first time in my nearly two decades as a military spouse, deployment means something different to me.
I recently deployed in support of the devastating earthquakes in Türkiye and Syria, where I served as a spokesperson for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. My month-long assignment showcased the deepest level of human tragedy but also the beauty of humanity and the resilience and shining spirit of those who want to help.
Upon arriving in Türkiye shortly after the quake, I was stunned by the enormity of the destruction. Photos simply cannot do it justice. Most people have lost everything. It’s a lot to take in but here are a few stories of those lending a helping hand that have stuck with me.
Birgul and Onur: Supporting Those in Need
Turkish Red Crescent team member Birgul specializes in public health.
For years, she’s been working to support refugees through a program that provides an emergency social safety net for the most vulnerable.
Türkiye is home to more refugees than any other country in the world, including more than 3.5 million Syrian refugees who have fled the war in the past 12 years.
According to Birgul, a population that was already struggling has been dealt yet another blow.
“Some of these people have already been through so much, it’s hard to imagine what this must feel like,” she said.
I also met Onur, who works with Birgul on the Turkish Red Crescent team based in Ankara. Currently, he’s serving as a driver assisting medical teams in the hardest-hit areas near the city of Nurdagi. Within minutes of meeting him, we were talking about his summer in America, where he worked at Dave & Busters in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.
He loves many things about America, but one of his favorite things are cheeseburgers, noting that he would have one every day if he could.
Birgul and Onur have been working nonstop since the first quake struck. Onur said in the first couple of days, he didn’t even stop to eat. “I was just going from one place to the next trying to help,” he said. Despite the intensity of their work, they both remarked that they don’t want to take a break or a day off.
Nilhan: Honoring Those Lost
I met Nilhan at a Turkish Red Crescent center in one of the hardest-hit areas — the city of Antakya in the southern province of Hatay. Before the quake, the city was a bustling multicultural hub and tourist destination with a population of more than 400,000 people.
Typically, Nilhan works in Istanbul where she serves as the head of women’s volunteer services and recruitment for her region.
Her passions lie in providing programs for disadvantaged women and children. Three months ago, she attended a training in Hatay focused on women volunteers building stronger communities. “I met so many friends during this event,” she said.
Today, little remains of Antakya, and virtually no buildings are left standing. Homes, lives and communities are shattered and people are left to pick up the pieces in the province of Hatay and all over southern Türkiye.
“No words can describe the sadness in my heart and my soul today. Hatay was a lovely, multicultural place before the earthquake and nothing remains anymore,” Nilhan said noting that over 30 of her colleagues who attended the training perished in the earthquakes.
She felt that she had to do something to heal the wounds of the people here. Soon, she gathered more than 40 women volunteers to help lend a hand. “Some of us have medical skills. Some of us are psychologists. Some of us hand out tea and serve coffee. Every volunteer plays a key role in helping the victims of this terrible disaster,” she said.
She says one thing that stands out is the generosity of those they are helping. “People have lost everything. Many times, I’ve held my tears when those who have nothing declined aid, saying that it is more than what they need and that the rest should go to others.”
Nilhan says she finds strength in her fellow women volunteers. “As women volunteers, we feel like the mother of all children. We are responsible for them and want to help them in the face of so much sadness.”
Umut and His Hope for the Future
One of my favorite encounters was meeting a 15-year-old by the name of Umut — a name that means hope in Turkish.
We met at a center for those impacted by the earthquake, where people can get emotional support, food, medical care and pick up essential items.
Umut was quick to ask me out on a date, noting that — “it’s okay that you’re an older lady.” His bravado and spirit were simply amazing. When he and his family rebuild their lives,
I hope his courage leads the way.
Military Spouse Susan Malandrino, a Communications Lead for the American Red Cross Service to the Armed Forces and International Services Divisions, deployed to Türkiye with the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent (IFRC) to support people affected by the recent earthquakes.
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