Rohingya Doctoral Candidate Helps Earthquake Victims in Turkey

WASHINGTON — Residents along the Turkey-Syria border were just beginning to return home to inspect the damage from the massive Feb. 6 earthquake when another tremor struck this week, said Myanmar psychology student Aung Naing Shwe, who is in the region serving as a humanitarian aid volunteer.

"It went on for what felt like 10 minutes," Aung said in a Zoom interview with VOA from Hatay, the city hit hardest by the earlier quake.

"We looked on in shock as we saw debris caused by collapsed structures, women crying and people fleeing their homes into the middle of the road," he said. "It happened right at a time when people were starting to come back to buildings that had already been damaged, sifting through what used to be their homes, looking for possessions."

"Seeing this kind of disaster happen again," he told VOA, was "terrifying for everyone, myself included. People who were just a few days ago living out in the streets under tents were again outside reliving all of the trauma of living through the earthquakes. ... So, it is an incredible concern for everybody who is here, especially those trying to rebuild their lives."

Aung and his team from the nonprofit International Youth Forum in Ankara originally came to the hard-hit border area to help survivors of the Feb. 6 earthquakes that shook Turkey and Syria, killing more than 45,000 people.

A large number of people are still missing in the rubble of the thousands of apartment buildings. Aung said he and his fellow humanitarian workers "never could have imagined that during our five-day mission, we would witness another quake up close."

Aung Naing Shwe in front of a damaged building in Turkey. (Courtesy Aung Naing Shwe) Aung Naing Shwe in front of a damaged building in Turkey. (Courtesy Aung Naing Shwe)

Aung, who is currently studying for a doctorate, is based in Ankara. His fellow International Youth Forum members flew in from Malaysia, along with several other international nongovernmental organizations to assist the earthquake-torn regions of Hatay, Gaziantep and Kahramanmaras.

From Ankara, the group of young volunteers traveled together to the Turkey-Syria border where they built temporary shelters and tents for refugees, helped survivors move their belongings and provided food, bottled water and clothes. They also assisted with logistics, distributing necessary materials to different areas and other distribution points.

Aung said his studies as a psychologist have helped him connect with quake victims. In one instance, an elderly female survivor shared her story of losing her family, her home and all of her possessions.

"I called her ‘grandmother’ and asked her how I could help. She said she just needed to talk to someone. ‘I had everything, and now I have lost it all,’ she said. Then she held me, and we cried together. It was terrible and very moving," Aung said.

"Currently, the most important thing for the earthquake victims is survival. The cold weather has increased the need for items such as clothing, blankets, portable stoves, cookware, shoes and jackets," Aung told VOA.

He urged the international community to help in any way they can.

According to the Turkish government’s Disaster and Emergency Management Presidency, 9 million people have been affected in some way, and 47,000 buildings have been destroyed or damaged. The government is still scrambling to provide shelter for at least 1 million homeless survivors who are in urgent need of sanitary facilities two weeks after the two massive earthquakes.

Aung praised the Turkish government’s efforts.

"The government is well-organized in the relief effort. For example, requesting humanitarian aid and rescue teams from the international community and organizing and sending that aid to those who need it most. The government has been providing free food and water for anyone who needs it.

"They are also supplying free food at the checkpoints in Hatay, along the Syrian border. Those checkpoints were very strictly controlled by the Turkish military, but they have opened them for earthquake survivors in the region,’ he said.

Explaining why he volunteered to do humanitarian aid work in Turkey, Aung said, "Turkey has provided educational support to Rohingya students like myself, so I feel that it’s my responsibility to help the Turkish people in any way I can.

"As a Rohingya Muslim from Myanmar, and a human rights activist, I also understand the feelings of people who are victims of forces beyond their control. I feel happy when I can offer support to others in need," he said.