Turkish students at UC Santa Barbara are fundraising and aiming to raise awareness about the severity of the humanitarian crisis in Turkey and Syria, where a devastating Feb. 6 earthquake killed over 40,000 people and decimated cities in both countries.
Second-year computer science major and president of the newly founded Turkish Students and Scholars Association (TSSA) Emre Cikisir said that Turkish students are doing what they can to support rebuilding efforts in Turkey because the earthquake — the deadliest in decades — has left many Turkish people struggling and at least 1 million homeless.
TSSA hosted fundraisers at Rockfire Grill and partnered with local restaurant SADE Turkish Coffee and Baklava to sell baklava on Feb. 14, raising nearly $1,000 to send to Turkish humanitarian aid organizations. The group plans to sell more baklava in the Arbor on Feb. 16 from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. UCSB’s Lebanese Social Club is also holding a walk-a-thon on Feb. 16 at 4:30 to raise money for earthquake relief in Turkey and Syria.
“We’re just trying to do our parts here in America. We’re not over there … [so] we’re just trying to get awareness as much as we can, get some money to donate,” Cikisir said. “In Turkey, our economy is not the greatest. So, a $5 donation from some students — like half a Panda Express order — will help a family be full for one more day.”
Fourth-year communication and Spanish double major and TSSA member Ayse Oztekin spoke to the importance of spreading the word about the fundraising to support such humanitarian efforts throughout the greater UCSB community, as the relatively small size of UCSB’s Turkish population can make outreach difficult.
“There’s not that huge of a Turkish community,” she said. “I’ve been talking to professors, and one of my classes reached out to, I think five people that came to the fundraiser … If every professor could do that, for example, it would be like 500.”
Both Cikisir and Oztekin said that while they didn’t have family directly in the destruction zone of the earthquake, the experience has been frightening and stressful for their family members living in Istanbul.
“They’re usually watching TV, checking out the news. Every single time, even if I call them at 2 or 3 a.m., they’re watching, seeing what happens. They’re all devastated. You know, there are not [many] parts of life right now in Turkey that [are] joyful because everyone’s sad. Everyone’s mourning,” Cikisir said.
Oztekin added that following the earthquake, she was similarly glued to the news, waiting for updates on the destruction.
“Personally, I wasn’t able to go to school last week for a couple of days. I was just in my room watching the news, which probably is not a good idea, just because it makes you more upset and more anxious. But I feel like it’s not something that we can ignore, and it’s been something that the whole world has been ignoring,” she said.
Oztekin and Defne Saglam, a fourth-year communication and film and media studies double major and TSSA marketing and public relations chair, both said that they didn’t feel that Americans understood the severity of the crisis Turkey was undergoing.
“A couple of my friends know about it because they have either seen someone post about it on their social media, or I’ve talked about it, or like if they follow international news or something on their own,” Saglam said. “But besides that, a lot of people around me have never heard about it or don’t necessarily understand how big it is, just because I think in the media it’s not emphasized enough.”
While Oztekin said she was appreciative of those who supported the fundraisers, she has been hurt by friends who seem to lack understanding or care for the magnitude of the crisis.
She also said she didn’t feel as though Chancellor Henry T. Yang’s Feb. 10 message of concern was adequate, and its days-long delay made it feel disingenuous.
“Our thoughts are with the people of Syria and Turkey – with those individuals directly affected, and the thousands of search and rescue personnel working to save lives,” Yang’s email stated. “We appreciate the kindness and compassion of our community and the many ways in which we are reaching out to help, such as by donating to one of the disaster relief agencies working to bring aid to the region.”
According to Cikisir, his Turkish friends at other universities have been able to raise large sums of money for earthquake relief due to the direct support of their chancellors and administrators, which he said TSSA did not receive despite repeatedly reaching out to Yang’s office.
“One of my friends at Boston University raised nearly $40,000 because the chancellor helped them, posted their group links, posted where they are going to have a fundraiser, posted what is going to happen, and that actually helped people to come there,” he said.
All three students — Cikisir, Oztekin and Saglam — said that they were excited for the future of TSSA, which provides a space for Turkish students on campus and has been meaningful in the wake of the earthquake.
“When I first came to UCSB, four years ago, there was no such organization. So I think it’s really great that some of our friends here have taken the initiative to create a space for other Turkish students, and it’s a really empowering space,” Saglam said.
For Oztekin, the club provided an opportunity to help and connect with her Turkish community during a time of great uncertainty and devastation.
“It sucks being so far away and feeling like we can’t be of direct help, and we’re also away from our families,” she said. “I know there’s a lot of international students here, and there’s a lot like me, who also lived here their whole life but are in desperate need of a Turkish community. So I think it’s a great club for everyone.”
A version of this article appeared on p. 1 of the Feb. 16, 2023, print edition of the Daily Nexus.