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Tuesday, May 28, 2024

We are not used to tragedy

46,834 people dead and counting. 24 million more affected.

Since Feb. 6, I have been navigating two starkly different worlds: images of death and destruction from my friends in Turkey, and the blissful ignorance that defines life in the U.S. Chaos is ever-present, with news of dead bodies and desperate, shivering survivors constantly making headlines. But here in Middlebury, life is as normal as it could be. Barely anyone acknowledges the earthquake, asks about it or let alone tries to do something about it. It feels like I’m hallucinating an elaborate crisis as the “real” world goes on. 

This has been the reality for Turkish and Syrian people across the U.S. and the world for the last two weeks. We have been clawing our way through bureaucracy, indifference and negligence in order to help our community; all the while our American peers barely spare a second to glance at headlines or posters. Even Laurie Patton, with Middlebury’s mission to “address the world's most challenging problems,” has generously decided that a brief paragraph at the end of an email celebrating the start of the spring semester, more than a week after the earthquake, was enough. We scream, but it’s as if our cries are inaudible, not on the same frequency as Western ones.

I want to let you in on a little secret: People living in the Middle East are not used to tragedy. We are not predisposed nor destined to suffer. We are living, breathing humans with love, hate, joy and sadness. We lead complex lives of our own, just like you, and sometimes are forced to deal with overwhelming pain.

In a turbulent time for me and my community, I urge you, the Middlebury community, to examine why you have this image of us, to interrogate why you assume that our hardships are inevitable. Why you choose not to act when we call for help, why you choose not to pay attention when news of our suffering makes its way into your bubble at our small liberal arts college in Vermont.

And then, I want you to stop and take a moment to consider if you could afford to help out a little. 

Check news sources for vital updates on the region, such as the 6.3 magnitude aftershock that struck the region just this Monday, hurting already traumatized survivors. Keep an eye out for on-campus or in-town events relating to the earthquake. Get involved with those trying to help, such as West Asian and North African Students (a recently formed club by Kaveh Abu Khaleel ’26 and me), faculty efforts for awareness and other networks. Ask how your Turkish and Syrian friends have been doing, and actually listen. If you can, donate to Ahbap, through a campaign organized by Associate Professor of Political Science Şebnem Gümüşçü and other Turkish faculty in the U.S., or Basmeh & Zeitooneh. With an exchange rate of 19 Turkish Liras to one U.S. dollar, even a little bit makes an incredible impact.

Moreover, I ask that you recognize that this is not a temporary crisis. A significant portion of our countries has been damaged, our already unstable politics shaken up and our people left homeless with nowhere to go. The path to healing is excruciating, long and often out of sight, but we believe it is still possible. We know that utopia is not achievable anytime soon, but we are also aware that any lives saved and any families clothed are hugely significant changes. Changes we, together with YOU, are capable of making.

Beyond that, educate yourselves on the historical and political contexts that have led to this catastrophe. The faculty panel last week with Gümüşçü, Assistant Professor of Economics Cihan Artunç and Professor of History Febe Armanios did an excellent job of explaining it. If you missed it, there are plenty of resources available online. Read about how the Syrian civil war came to be, Turkey's role as host to nearly 4 million refugees, and the systemic inequalities and oppression have exacerbated the effects of disasters like this. You can even learn about Middlebury’s own involvement in the Middle East, a history stretching back to the 1800s.

Reflect on your power to enact changes that have rippling international effects. If you come from a country largely unaffected by wars, consider examining your privilege and biases. Consider how this insulation shapes your worldview.

When news of suffering reaches you, don't look away. It may be easier to ignore headlines about people you perceive as "others," but we are all humans who deserve security. If you have the means to help, do so however you can. And if you don't, spread the word to those who might. Collective action has power, no matter how small each act.

Together, we can work towards making the world more just and compassionate, creating an impact that will unquestionably be vital to earthquake survivors. The time for change is now and always.