Turkey earthquake: Syrian refugees volunteer with rescue efforts
On Monday, hundreds of Syrian refugees joined thousands of Turks in Istanbul’s Esenyurt Square to do what they could for those afflicted by the devastating double earthquake that struck Syria and Turkey, the first one at dawn.
Their efforts - echoed by others across the country - have continued as the disaster’s death toll has spiralled to past 11,000.
Voluntary campaigns supervised by the Turkish authorities and the Turkish Red Crescent have focused on blood donations and collecting financial and in-kind donations to be sent to the south of the country where the earthquake struck.
“The numbers of donors were huge in Esenyurt Square, where many donated new clothes, blankets, and some contributed financial aid,” Bassel al-Abisi, a Syrian volunteer with the Turkish Red Crescent, who has worked as a translator between Turkish and Arabic speakers, told Middle East Eye on Tuesday.
"There were many Syrians who wanted to donate,” he added.
Many have done so, but others’ efforts have been hindered by fears they will be detained or of complicated bureaucracy - particularly for those without papers.
Turkey shelters more than 3.6 million Syrians along with close to 320,000 refugees from other nationalities, making it the world's largest refugee-hosting country, according to the UN. A decade on from the outbreak of the Syrian war, the relationship between the communities has grown tense.
Several Turkish opposition parties have promised to return Syrian refugees. One far-right party launched a fundraising campaign in January promising to spend the cash on bus tickets it says will be used to deport Syrian refugees.
With Turkey due to hold presidential elections in June, many observers have speculated that Ankara is aiming to repair its relationship with Damascus to show voters that it can begin to return refugees.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, once the proud protector of the Syrian refugees, now promises to open the way for their return, at least to Turkish-controlled areas of northern Syria.
Thousands of Syrians who have been denied residency papers are now trying to help people in southern Turkey, though they are not allowed to donate blood, according to Syrian volunteer Abisi.
"I hope I can get there soon,” Abdulrahman al-Ahmad, a Syrian refugee living in Istanbul, told MEE. “I have registered all my data to volunteer to join the search for survivors under the rubble. I am waiting for a response.”
‘Today we must put aside all racist expressions and problems. There is a catastrophe that does not know the nationality of anyone - and hit everyone’
- Ali, Syrian refugee
"I can help with anything, I can help remove rubble or help firefighters and medical staff. We survived a big war, which ruined our lives and made us refugees but gave us experience in dealing with disasters," he added over messenger.
"The weather is freezing and a large number of buildings have fallen and there are many families displaced around the rubble of their homes, the conditions are catastrophic," he added.
"The rescue operation of one person needs hours and many workers, so any additional assistance will be life-saving," Al-Ahmad said.
"The problem is that most of the roads are out of order and the airports are working at their maximum capacity, so I appreciate the situation and I'm waiting patiently for a response on the form."
Other Syrians in Turkey without residency papers are too afraid that they will be detained if they are caught on the way to a donation centre.
Even those with residency papers are fearful of travelling to affected areas without a travel permit, which can sometimes take weeks to obtain.
Syrians who do not have residency papers and cannot travel at all are stranded, struggling to find out the fate of their relatives, with the internet mostly down in the areas hit by the earthquake.
‘The Turkish brothers donated immediately’
Hundreds of thousands of civilians have been displaced in southern Turkey, including thousands of Syrians who have no relatives in the country.
Among those affected by the disaster was Mustafa Sejri, a member of the political wing of a Turkish-backed Syrian rebel group. He was trapped under the rubble for about 12 hours. Video footage later posted on social media showed he had been rescued alive.
In the city of Kayseri, in central Turkey, dozens of Syrian donors came to give blood in the midst of a snowstorm.
"I donated blood and there were dozens of Syrian brothers who donated,” the man, who called himself Ali, told MEE via messenger. “Today we must put aside all racist expressions and problems. There is a catastrophe that does not know the nationality of anyone - and hit everyone."
But others were hindered in their efforts. Alaa al-Daghim, a Syrian refugee residing in Istanbul, told MEE that he couldn’t give blood in Istanbul’s Esenyurt.
"I went with my friends yesterday. They asked us to fill out an Arabic form and come back tomorrow. There was no crowd, and the Turkish brothers donated immediately without waiting.
"There is a link that the state sent today on everyone's phones to donate. I entered it and booked a new appointment. When I went there, officials said this link does not work. Fill in a new form and we will contact you on the phone.
"I've been waiting since 11 am," he told MEE, 12 hours later.