Opinion: Yes, you can help the Turkey-Syria earthquake victims

A girl standing with her back to a wall.
A girl stands next to destroyed buildings in Antakya, Turkey, after a magnitude 7.8 earthquake hit the region.
(Khalil Hamra / Associated Press)

The Antakya I know is a cosmopolitan city in southern Turkey. Kurtuluş Caddesı, the city’s central avenue, is similar to streets in Los Angeles or Miami, lined with restaurants and palm trees, resonant with multiple languages. The city was devastated in Monday’s earthquake that rocked Turkey and Syria, killing more than 23,000 people. To now see the images of Antakya with its buildings and homes collapsed and its trees turned to wreckage is shocking, engendering a sense of despair and helplessness that is easy to give into. But there are ways to help.

I lived and worked in Antakya in 2014. My employer, a French humanitarian agency, operated across the border in Syria’s northern Idlib province, providing assisted walking devices and rehabilitation therapy to civilians who’d lost limbs in the Syrian war. For better or worse, that area is no stranger to disaster, and neither are the many humanitarian organizations that have been operating there for decades. Our role — as humans wanting to help in the face of unspeakable suffering — is to recognize that there are people and institutions on the ground with years of experience navigating similar emergencies, and to support them. The best way to do that now is to send money.

Well-intentioned efforts to collect and send more tangible items — like clothing, medical or camping equipment — are exorbitantly expensive because of shipping and handling costs. It’s also a logistical nightmare for aid organizations to get these goods to the right people in the right places. Having to load and unload literal tons of unmatched old clothes, having to drive them to and from ports and airfields — it’s exhausting, and frankly, completely unnecessary.


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In our rush to help, it’s easy to overlook the fact that Turkey is an upper-middle income country and many of the affected areas are large, well-connected metropolitan centers. Any and all items needed for an emergency response can almost certainly be bought nearby, which helps ensure that they’re truly suited to people’s needs there, and also helps rebuild the newly fragile economy. Sending money also helps pay for relief organizations’ labor, staff and experts in the field. There are not enough (skilled) volunteers in the world to rebuild all the homes, buildings, parks and roads that were destroyed; that will take specialized skills from engineers, architects, urban planners and so on. They cannot be expected to do all that work for free indefinitely. In the immediate aftermath of an emergency, cash trumps all.

Of course, the danger with huge influxes of cash is a scenario like post-earthquake Haiti, where more than $13 billion of aid money poured in after a powerful 2010 earthquake ravaged the country. Yet, much of that money was misspent or mismanaged. Today, that country is hardly better prepared for the crises that continue to afflict it, including not only earthquakes but also, more recently, cholera.

Avoiding another scenario like that takes work on our part. It takes spending time to find out which organizations or groups have good reputations in Turkey and Syria, and also the capacity to deploy donations for a meaningful and sustained emergency response. I’m lucky to have friends and former colleagues in Antakya whom I can ask. (From their vantage, they’ve recommended the White Helmets, Molham Volunteering Team, Syrian American Medical Society, Doctors Without Borders and Norwegian Refugee Council). If you want to do your own research, you might know an aid worker, or someone with family in Turkey or Syria who could help point you in the right direction. Social media, of course, is also full of GoFundMe’s. If a fundraising campaign is led by someone you trust and they’re posting receipts of how they’re spending donations or offering some other form of accountability, that could also be a direct route of helping that avoids the overhead costs of larger institutions.

After I fled Syria and started over as an actor in Hollywood, I realized I could use my art and voice to call attention to the plight of refugees.

In the months to come, the emergency will continue, albeit in a different form. Rebuilding — especially in parts of Syria already torn apart by war — will take years, and our response will matter then, too. Supporting the area in a few years might mean continued donations, but it could also take the form of amplifying the advocacy of the local leaders who emerge during this crisis. Or you could sponsor asylum seekers from that area, which individual Americans can now do. Or do something fun, like planning a holiday in the area once rebuilding has progressed further. Antakya is beautiful, its old town lined with charming cobblestone streets, its markets selling fresh savory pide and the best sweet homemade kunefe I’ve ever tasted. Just outside the city, stunning rock-carved churches and mosques dot the hills.

Some of those sites have been destroyed by the earthquake. But with the right kind of help, they can be restored, perhaps not exactly as they were before — but that’s not the point. Disasters transform us. So can rebuilding collectively, with the kind of care and sustained engagement that we’d extend to our own neighbors. In other words, this is a time for mutual aid, which, above all, is tailored to the needs of our neighbors and continues even after the media have stopped covering the story. But mutual aid doesn’t have to stop at the boundary of our neighborhood or even our country — it can span borders, oceans and time zones. It can span humanity.

Raksha Vasudevan is a writer based in Denver and a former aid worker. @RakshaVasudevan