Marking Six Months on the Earthquakes in Türkiye and Syria

Marking Six Months on the Earthquakes in Türkiye and Syria: Koç University Staff and Student efforts

On February 6th, 2023, Türkiye experienced deadly earthquakes resulting in widespread destruction of ten provinces in southern Türkiye as well as parts of northern Syria. As work continues to support survivors and the affected areas, we look back on Koç University (KU) students’ and staff’s efforts.

As the disaster occurred during the semester break, many students were in their home provinces, so the Koç University Earthquake Coordination group was quickly formed to get in touch with students from affected provinces. The group, included around 1000 KU students, helped with search and rescue efforts by recording and reporting the names of missing students and their addresses. Students also helped by informing their peers in affected provinces about relief sites. KU faculty, students and staff commemorate the students Berk Satar, Nursima Sarıgül, and Muhammed Gedemenli who lost their lives in the earthquakes.

Following the earthquakes, the university organized series of efforts to contribute to disaster relief efforts. A collection run was organized in coordination with the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality (IMM). Students, faculty members and staff collected and donated items and goods based on the IMM’s assessment of needs. These were then transported to Hatay province given the immense need and harsh weather conditions. Students from KU and their peers from Boğaziçi University reached out to around 500 high school and middle school students in the affected regions via Twitter (now X). Students from both universities organized to act as mentors especially to high school students in their final year. Final year high school students are expected to undertake university entrance examinations that determine which fields of study and universities students may enter, making it one of the most stressful moments in young adults’ lives. The organizers matched 100 students, mentors, from KU to 200 high school and middle school students in the provinces of Hatay, Kahramanmaraş, Gaziantep, Şanlıurfa, Malatya, Diyarbakır, Adıyaman, Osmaniye and Mardin. 

Mentors developed course plans and worked on the academic subjects that mentees were facing difficulties with via weekly telephone calls. Rümeysa Özsağlıcak, an economics student at KU who was involved in organizing and mentoring, explained that high school students especially, “need someone who understands their problems and has experienced with the exam to explain to them what they could ‘do’ and show them the method. My general observation is that the pain they are experiencing is immense, and psychologically, they are trying to work through these difficulties and heal from them. Because of this, they could not afford to think about analytical issues such as studying and planning lessons. At this point, we as mentors were helping, so if there is a subject that the student does not understand, s/he tells us, and we tried to make student’s work easier by preparing a weekly lesson schedule”.

Financial and psychosocial problems are prominent for students in the disaster affected regions. Many students’ homes or schools were destroyed, and they were living in tents or container cities. In addition, they had lost their books or computers and had no, or intermittent, access to the internet. Many of the students were struggling mentally due to the traumas experienced. Özsağlıcak and her colleagues worked to match volunteer psychologists with mentees who were having mental health issues. Furthermore, the mentors acted as a form of emotional support as they worked with mentees for several months acting as a source of stability in an environment of uncertainty.

Mentors also supported each other by sharing their experiences or guidance on how to deal with mentee expectations. Özsağlıcak explained that “As a Koç University student, this experience greatly improved my perception of ‘solidarity’. Our empathy skills have certainly improved in the process. Since we were able to offer a solution by empathizing with the stresses and problems experienced by our fellow students, we actually learned to understand people.” She added, “Despite some barriers that we could not solve with our students (such as living in a tent, lack of course material, etc.), we persisted. In this respect, I can say that our tutoring experience has taught us not to give up and to develop practical solutions.”

Commenting on the different efforts, “The work we did far exceeded the abilities of a young student, and we might not have contributed, if we simply thought that ‘we are just students, government agencies, officials and businesspeople can handle these problems’. The important thing here was that we felt responsible for our nation,” Özsağlıcak said. This sense of responsibility is solely not limited to responding needs. The KU UNIC team, in collaboration with the Industrial Engineering Society (IES), organized a Pop-up Citylab titled ‘Disaster Logistics and Technologies Ideathon’. The Pop-Up Citylab focused on learning from the Kahranmaraş earthquakes and developing solutions to address the logistics and technological problems that may occur during and after future earthquakes. As the Marmara region is also expected to experience an earthquake, citylab participants focused on developing Istanbul-specific solutions.

A total of 28 KU students participated in the virtual ideathon held on April 7-8, 2023. The jury included scientists, disaster experts and field workers trained in the fields of geology, disaster management and logistics.

Hazal Halıgür, an industrial engineering student and one of the Ideathon organizers, said, “We explained to participants that they could produce solutions in two stages. The first stage was how to improve efforts in the regions affected by the Kahranmaraş earthquakes. The second stage was how to overcome the expected Istanbul-centred earthquake with the least damage. For this, they developed pre- and post-earthquake projects.”

As teams, students developed their ideas in a 24-hour period and the jury evaluated them based on their applicability, sustainability, innovation, and utility. The top three ideas developed were: a physio-therapist application for earthquake victims, a smart watch to assist in search and rescue for those trapped under rubble and using drone technologies to facilitate search and rescue operations.

“Ideathons are important for innovative thinking because they provide a platform for participants to tackle problems from a different perspective and find creative solutions. Ideathons provide an opportunity for different people from various fields to come together, work together, brainstorm and propose solutions,” explained Halıgür.

Following the Ideathon, it was proposed to present the top three ideas developed to AFAD (Disaster and Emergency Management Authority), AHBAP (Solidarity Association for the Social Support), and IMM as key actors involved in post-earthquake operations.

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