‘It hits you so bad.’ Mount Prospect vigil honors Turkish, Syrian earthquake victims

Leaders of various faiths led those gathered in prayer and song, moving many in the crowd to tears. The death toll from Monday’s temblor is estimated at 21,000.

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Mehmet Emin Deniz has lost nearly 100 family members in the Kahramanmaras earthquake in Turkey and Syria. Surviving family members are struggling without food, water or shelter.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

When Turkey was rocked by an earthquake Monday, Mehmet Emin Deniz was immediately concerned for his extended family in Antakya, a city in the southernmost region that was hit the hardest.

After not hearing anything from them for 24 hours, he finally got some news. It was devastating.

Deniz, 30, said he lost 100 members of his large family in the earthquake. Brothers, cousins, second-cousins, aunts and uncles. His parents survived, he said. But now they’re struggling to survive in a flattened, freezing city with no food, aid or resources.

“They’re having issues with water, there’s no electricity, and they’re sleeping outside,” Deniz said through a translator. “They’re not getting any help.”

Deniz and hundreds of others, many of whom also lost friends and family members in the disaster, came together Thursday for a prayer vigil at the Turkish American Society of Chicago in suburban Mount Prospect.

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A woman wipes a tear from her eye at an interfaith gathering Thursday in Mount Prospect to remember those affected by the earthquake in Turkey and Syria.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Leaders from various faith communities led the service in prayers and song, moving many in the crowd to tears. Speakers grew emotional as they shared messages of hope and healing. They implored the world to come together to assist the survivors.

“We gather today as Turks and as Syrians,” said Kareem Irfan, vice president of the Islamic Society of North America. “I’m sure each one of you feels that surge of love and compassion and caring for those who have been devastated by the earthquakes.”

The death toll from Monday’s 7.8 magnitude temblor that razed thousands of buildings is nearly 21,000. That includes more than 17,600 in Turkey and more than 3,300 in civil war-torn Syria. Tens of thousands were also injured.

The deaths have surpassed the total from a 2011 earthquake off Fukushima, Japan, that triggered a tsunami, killing more than 18,400; and the estimated 18,000 people who died in a temblor near Istanbul in 1999.

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Beyza Vural said her mother’s friend was stuck under the rubble of this collapsed building in Turkey’s Hatay Province.

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Reflecting the scale of devastation, an indoor sports hall has been turned into a makeshift morgue in Kahramanmaras, the nearest Turkish city to the earthquake’s epicenter.

It wasn’t clear how many people were still unaccounted for in both countries.

Beyza Vural, 24, said her mother was worried that one of her friends in the hard-hit Hatay Province was among the missing. They were able to find the friend’s name on Twitter with the help of citizens on the ground who were posting the identities of those missing on social media.

The friend and her family were found to be stuck under the rubble of a collapsed building, Vural said. She added that she thinks rescue efforts in the country were too slow to save many people.

“There were logistical hurdles, and we understood that the rescue teams didn’t make it there,” Vural said. “Sometimes people who were stuck under the rubble were recording themselves and posting on Twitter asking for help, but nobody was able to make it.”

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Beyza Vural thinks rescuers were too slow to save many people. “There were logistical hurdles, and we understood hat the teams didn’t make it there,” she said.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

“When you know someone is under the rubble, your family or your friend, it’s so different,” she said. “It hits you so bad because you know someone you love is trapped under the rubble, but you can’t help them. You realize how helpless people are.”

The United States will provide $85 million in initial earthquake aid to Turkey and Syria. The relief will include medicine, food and shelter along with other supplies, President Joe Biden announced Thursday.

“Our hearts remain with the people of Türkiye and Syria,” Biden said on his official Twitter account.

Turkey’s disaster-management agency said more than 110,000 rescue personnel were now taking part in the effort and more than 5,500 vehicles, including tractors, cranes, bulldozers and excavators had been shipped. The Foreign Ministry said 95 countries have offered help.

Deniz said that some of his surviving family members in Turkey are volunteering to help locate people. They send him photos and videos of their discoveries every day.

For those wishing to help locally there are many organizations in the Chicago area offering assistance. The Turkish American Cultural Alliance of Chicago is collecting donations of winter supplies to send to the region. It is also collecting donations online. The Turkish American Society of Chicago is also collecting money via a GoFundMe campaign.

Those who want to donate money can also visit Embrace Relief and Unicef online.

The U.S. Treasury Department said Thursday it had issued a license to allow earthquake-related relief to get through that would otherwise be prohibited by sanctions on Syria.

“We’re gonna need a lot of assistance, people are still stuck under the rubble and a lot of buildings have collapsed,” Vural said. “This isn’t just about saving lives now, this is gonna be a long-term disaster, unfortunately.”

Contributing: AP

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