In the aftermath of a 7.8 magnitude earthquake that struck Turkey and Syria in the early hours of the morning of Feb. 6, members of the Stanford community mobilized to raise awareness and rally support for the victims and survivors thousands of miles away, as well as for each other on campus.

Stanford students gathered in White Plaza to raise awareness and fundraise for the relief effort in Turkey and Syria. (Image credit: Trever Tachis)

The disaster has killed at least 22,000 so far, and the death toll is still rising. For Stanford faculty, staff, and students with ties to the area, it has been a terrifying week filled with anxiety and uncertainty while they wait for news from loved ones, with some fearing the worst.

On Wednesday night, a support group organized by the Markaz Resource Center was held on campus for those affected.

Some two dozen people, including students, faculty, and staff with connections to Turkey, Syria, and Lebanon filled the Markaz Lounge to share their grief, anxiety, helplessness, and anger in a safe, supportive space led by Enas Dakwar, a staff psychologist at Vaden Health Services and Rania Awaad, a clinical associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Stanford School of Medicine.

“There was a whole range of emotions,” said Awaad in an interview with Stanford Report afterward. The structure and content of the support group were informed by Awaad’s research and the on-the-ground mental health relief work with Syrian refugees that she and her lab have been involved in for many years.

Over the evening, participants described a mix of experiences, sleepless nights, loss of appetite, and an inability to concentrate on work and school while they await news about family and friends, which has been slow to come in.

“Because of internet and power outages, they couldn’t tell if their family was alive or not, how they were doing, if they were rescued or not,” Awaad said. “One student shared how finally, after hours and hours, they were able to get a brief voice note from their siblings who were able to say, ‘We’re actually alive. We’re actually in the accounted.’ ”

Awaad recounted how some people have been poring over lists of the deceased online in search of names of their relatives.

It has been especially difficult for people being so far away from the disaster, Awaad said, noting that feelings of helplessness are common.

While people have donated to charities, some feel that aid isn’t reaching the afflicted fast enough. There was also anger towards the politicization of the catastrophe – sanctions have made it incredibly difficult to get aid to areas affected – and people feel that politics is detracting attention from victims and survivors, Awaad said.

It has also been uniquely difficult for people connected to Syria. There, the earthquake compounds with another humanitarian crisis: an ongoing civil war. The UN estimates that since the conflict began in 2011, there have been more than 306,000 civilian casualties and mass displacement to other countries, including Turkey.

“Any earthquake and natural disaster is so terrible, but this is on a whole other level because of what they have already been through and for so many years,” Awaad said. One person attending the support group shared how their family in Syria has been resettled 20 times already. For that family, the repercussions of the earthquake are now one of many things they have to deal with.

Mobilizing awareness and support

Hours after the earthquake, Markaz, which supports a vibrant community of students who identify with or are interested in the Muslim experience, issued a statement of solidarity and support for all those affected.

Cassandra Garcia, the associate director at Markaz, has been coordinating with students in the Markaz community and others on campus who are affected in their support efforts. She said it has been particularly difficult for students from the region, particularly given ongoing regional conflicts.

“I think for many students in our community, processing a disaster of this magnitude is challenging,” Garcia said. “For people who have a family history of war and conflict, this is also re-traumatizing for them … I think students are sort of reeling from all this.”

Stanford students have been mobilizing however they can, from fundraising to organizing aid and other supplies to send to the rescue effort.

The Turkish Students Association (TSA) has been raising awareness on one of their organization’s social media accounts and through their email list serve for various organizations. TSA has also printed posters and fliers that they are putting up around campus.

One of the group’s newest efforts is a table in White Plaza on Fridays. People who want support or to learn more about the unfolding crisis are invited to come by.

One student from Turkey, who asked to remain anonymous, said the earthquake has been “emotionally devastating.”

They said they were personally deeply moved by how quickly the Turkish community at Stanford galvanized, even those who do not have any relatives or other personal connections in the region where the earthquake struck.

“We felt the pain as if it was our pain,” they said.

They said they feel like they are “racing against time” to get help to those affected. Because of the valuation of the U.S. dollar against the Turkish lira, a little goes a long way. “A small donation in U.S. dollars can make a big difference in people’s lives,” they said.

The Arab Student Association (ASAS) has also been fundraising for organizations responding in Syria.

“The thing that we can do most right now is band together: support ourselves, support those affected, and support our peers,” said Ziyad Saber Gawish, co-president of ASAS and a senior studying computer science and electrical engineering. He urged people to donate what they can and also said a small amount can have a big impact. Gawish and others have pointed out that sanctions in Syria make it difficult to funnel aid to organizations that are on the ground trying to help.

Gawish also acknowledged that it might be hard for some people to give money and urged those who pray to hold people affected by the quake in their prayers.

On Friday afternoon after Jummah prayers, the Muslim Student Union (MSU) also raised awareness for disaster relief over a pizza luncheon in Old Union Courtyard.

Others have also organized donation drives across campus.

The Abbasi Program in Islamic Studies and its sister program, the Mediterranean Studies Forum also sent an email to their affiliates, expressing their condolences and pointing to support.

Long term impact still unknown

The crisis is still unfolding, and the full impact of the devastation will become clearer in the weeks and months to come.

It will continue to be challenging, especially as frigidly cold weather impedes rescue efforts.

In the meantime, Awaad urges people to check in with any friends and colleagues who have ties to the region, even if it may feel awkward or uncomfortable.

“I would encourage folks to push through their discomfort a little bit, and if they know somebody who might be from or connected to the region, to ask them how they are doing, and if they can support in some way,” Awaad said. “That might be very meaningful.”

Gawish also encouraged people to connect with those in impacted communities.

“Make sure your people are alright, make sure you’re alright,” he said, adding that self-care is important as well. “Be mindful and try to be there for yourself, because it’s stressful on you, but also for your peers.”

Awaad is planning to host another support group to help people process their grief and trauma in a couple of weeks time.