Students Share Their Families' Experiences of Heartbreak and Survival

Turkish Cultural Club members
President Sevil Turkoglu, Vice President Yigit C. Bozkurt and Secretary Elif Kurt of the Turkish Cultural Club raise awareness and funds for earthquake survivors.

By Karen  Angelo

Two weeks after earthquakes devastated parts of Turkey and Syria, UML students who have family or friends in the region continue to struggle with the grim aftermath of destruction and loss.

Since the 7.8-magnitude quake struck in the predawn hours of Feb. 6, followed by 7.5-magnitude aftershocks, officials have reported more than 46,000 people killed, thousands missing and millions rendered homeless. 

Sevil Turkoglu, president of the UML Turkish Cultural Club, gets anxious watching the news, but she can’t look away. 

“I am dealing with anxiety and stress due to this tragic natural disaster,” says Turkoglu, a Ph.D. candidate in the polymer science and plastics engineering program. “Unfortunately, one of my friends and his wife passed away. Their bodies were found eight days after the earthquakes hit.” 

The UML Turkish Cultural Club, a student organization with about 50 members, is raising money and collecting donations such as winter clothing, blankets and baby formula to support those affected by the disaster. Collection boxes have been set up around campus, including at University Crossing, Fox Hall and Cumnock Hall. The group also encourages monetary donations to the Türkiye Earthquake Relief Fund. To date, the fund has raised more than $8,000, which will be used to provide food, emergency medical supplies and support for frontline workers. 

Biomedical engineering and biotechnology major Ilayda Firlar, who is in constant contact with her family, says that her dad’s cousin was killed and many family members have lost their homes. 

“While most of my family has survived, the physical and mental damage will be felt for a long time,” says Firlar, who serves as treasurer of the Turkish Cultural Club. “Many are now homeless. I can’t sleep and am constantly checking the news.” 

Club Vice President Yigit C. Bozkurt, who lived through the 7.4-magnitude Izmit earthquake in Turkey that killed 17,000 people in 1999, has spoken to his parents, brothers and relatives almost daily since the quakes of two weeks ago. One of his cousins, who lives in Turkey’s southeastern Hatay province where the quake struck, barely survived and lost everything. This area more recently experienced another pair of quakes measuring 6.4 and 5.8 in magnitude.

“Stories of survival are good, but I also hear about the deaths,” says Bozkurt, a civil environmental engineering Ph.D. candidate. “It’s very difficult, and something I cannot talk about.” 

Chancellor Julie Chen praised the students for rallying the campus to support victims of this tragedy. 

“My heart goes out to all students and their families and friends who are affected by this disaster,” says Chen. “I appreciate that the Turkish Cultural Club members are raising money, collecting donations and supporting each other.”

Firlar welcomed the support from the university community. Staff from the Student Affairs and International Students & Scholars offices reached out to students from the affected areas to offer support. 

“I would like to thank the UML students, staff and faculty for their sensitivity,” says Firlar. “Many people asked if our families were safe immediately after they heard about this tragic disaster. My condolences go to those who lost loved ones. I hope UMass Lowell Turkish, Syrian, and Lebanese students, staff and faculty families and friends are all safe.”