Birsen Özden and her children on February 15, 2023. From left: Sedat (now 14 years old), Hasan (12), Gizem (9), Birsen Özden. Image Credit: Katrine Dige Houmøller.

One Year On, Turkey’s Earthquake Haunts Survivors with Trauma

Birsen Özden found herself embraced by an early Monday morning in February 2023 when the ground beneath her suddenly stirred. Groggy and medicated, she attempted to slip back into the realm of dreams. 

An hour later, certainty replaced the lingering doubt of a bone-shaking unfolding. Fully awake now, Birsen groped her way to her daughter. Hand in hand, they navigated through the labyrinth of their collapsing home, reaching the rooms of her two sons. 

Gathering all three children under her arms, they moved toward the exit, only to find the door unyielding, gripped by a stubbornness mirroring the growing panic within Birsen. 

The earth intensified its rhythmic convulsions. Birsen and her three kids broke free just in time, leaving their crumbling home behind.

“Maybe we didn’t die during the earthquake, but believe me, those who experienced that day die twice,” says Birsen tearfully, on the verge of breaking down.

A year has passed since the earthquake struck Turkey and Syria on February 6, 2023. Since that day, Birsen has grappled with stress and anxiety that has shaken not only her life and her children’s, but also those of millions, leaving enduring mental scars.

‘It was all a dream’

With a powerful magnitude of 7.8 on the Richter scale, the earthquake that shook Turkey early last year tore through the Hatay province, situated between the Mediterranean Sea and the Syrian border, along with another 11 affected provinces. 

The region experienced numerous strong aftershocks. The total death count surpassed 55,000, including almost 6,000 lives lost in neighboring Syria, as reported by the Red Cross. Hundreds are still missing. More than 100,000 people were injured.

The disaster affected almost 16 million people and at least four million buildings. A year later, the aftermath led to a shift in population dynamics. Some chose to relocate to larger cities like Istanbul and Ankara, while others sought solace with family or moved abroad. Only the most fortunate ones managed to return home.

Both Ayşe and Birsen found temporary refuge in a tent camp at a Gaziantep stadium, which housed 400 families affected by the earthquake. February 15, 2023. Photo by Katrine Dige Houmøller.

Among them are Ayşe Demir and her husband, residents of Gaziantep in Southern Turkey – a significant city in the southeast of Turkey located a few kilometers from the earthquake’s epicenter. 

When the earthquake struck, Ayşe and her husband spent two days sleeping in their car. They found shelter in a tent camp soon after. In ten days, they were fortunate enough to return to their apartment, which had not been severely affected by the earthquake. A journey that reflects the resilience and hope of those rebuilding their lives after the tragedy.

“Sometimes I feel like it was all a dream. But when I see the areas that remain destroyed, it reminds me that the earthquake actually happened. But it can still be hard to accept,” Ayşe says.

Ayşe Demir in the tent camp in Gaziantep on February 15, 2023. Photo by Katrine Dige Houmøller.

From materialism to compassion

One month after the earthquake struck Turkey, Ayşe found a job with a private organization dedicated to aiding earthquake victims, particularly in Hatay and Yaman. Their focus is on assisting families, mothers, and babies by providing not only psychological support but also essential items like food and hygiene kits.

Before the earthquake disaster, Ayşe admits to being somewhat selfish, with material possessions holding importance. However, in the aftermath, her perspective has shifted, and finding joy in helping others has become her priority.

“Now, everything has more meaning to me. Solidarity is crucial at this point because whatever we do, whether it’s good or bad, affects someone else in this world,” she says.

Volunteers gathered in Turkey’s hard-hit city of Antakya on February 14, 2023. Photo by Katrine Dige Houmøller.

In the aftermath, solidarity and compassion emerged as crucial elements in southern Turkey. Devoted volunteers gathered in the affected cities, their unwavering commitment resonating alongside the constant hum of excavators sifting through the rubble. 

Some volunteers worked tirelessly to uncover both survivors and those who didn’t make it. Others, braving the winter chill, served steaming tea in small plastic cups and ladled soup and pasta into paper bowls for the earthquake victims.

Battling the darkness

For Birsen and her three children, life looks quite different one year after the earthquake altered their lives. They have been residing in a small container in Kahramanmaras in southern Turkey for the past year. 

Thousands find themselves still navigating life within the confines of temporary shelter zones, facing ongoing health and sanitation challenges. This per the non-profit humanitarian group, Direct Relief.

“I have nothing left in my hands. What can I do with my children if they are evicted from here? This is worse. This is worse… I can’t describe it,” Birsen cries.

Even before the earthquake, Birsen endured family abandonment, raising her children alone. From homelessness to women’s shelters, escaping violence and torture, she eventually found solace in a modest home, relying on odd jobs. 

But the earthquake shattered her world. It triggered past traumas, and the fragile order she had rebuilt collapsed. 

She can’t work. She has no money to provide for her kids. The doses of medication to soothe her fragile mental health increase, responsibilities multiply, and burnout pushes her to the brink. 

Two months ago, she faced two desperate moments, attempting to escape the pain that engulfed her world. She did not succeed in ending her own life.

“When I try to speak about what happened that day, I can’t make my voice heard. We’ve been forgotten. Truly forgotten. It’s been a year, but we are forgotten,” she says with a sense of hopelessness in her voice.

Birsen’s three children also bear the weight of their lingering traumas from the earthquake. In hushed moments before sleep, Birsen’s nine-year-old daughter clings to her mother, pleading with her not to leave her side. 

School, once a place of laughter, becomes a challenge. The teachers, concerned, reach out to Birsen, describing her daughter’s withdrawal and reluctance to engage with friends.

As Birsen tries to unravel the reason behind her daughter’s changed demeanor, the little girl remains tight-lipped. 

It’s only when news flashes on the television that Birsen’s daughter breaks her silence and turns to her mother with questions: “Mom, tell me, will something happen to us? What would happen if an earthquake starts while I’m at school?”

Birsen fears that the aftermath of the earthquake and her ongoing illness may be hindering her children’s recovery.

The disaster of the century

In the aftermath of the earthquake, Ayşe underwent profound changes, immersing herself in valuable lessons. She learned to navigate challenges beyond her control. 

Now she understands that she can’t always influence certain situations – Ayşe realized people from around the world were eager to support earthquake victims in Turkey through financial aid, given the absence of governmental assistance when it’s needed.

After the earthquake, as survivors emerged, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, facing an election, made grand promises. He vowed to rebuild half of the disaster zone, a staggering 320,000 homes, within a year. 

Amidst the visible construction activities in a significant part of the southeast, the details of the outcome remain unclear. According to The Guardian’s report in late January, a spokesperson from the Turkish presidency stated, “The construction of a total of 307,000 houses has commenced, and the delivery of 46,000 houses has begun gradually.”

Beneath the dust, heaps of rubble concealed the remains of the deceased and the struggling survivors. Antakya, southern Turkey, February 14, 2023. Photo by Katrine Dige Houmøller.

To mark the ‘Disaster of the Century,’ the Turkish government organized events for the one-year anniversary in southern Turkey. 

President Erdogan visited Kahramanmaras, inspecting reconstruction efforts and handing over completed homes. In a social media post, he expressed the enduring pain of the disaster: ‘Thank God, our nation has successfully passed this painful and historical test.’

In the past year, Turkey and Syria received nearly 600 tons of medical aid and over 8 million dollars in financial assistance for healthcare providers, as reported by Direct Relief. These donations came from individuals, foundations, businesses, and organizations in 111 countries.

A glimpse into the future

In the midst of uncertainty, Birsen finds herself stranded in a temporary container. Grappling with an empty wallet, unable to cover the rent and put food on the table, Birsen faces an uncertain future for her and her family. She yearns for a simple dream: a home where she can provide shelter for her children. To her, a roof over their heads holds the promise of a brighter tomorrow, where the essentials of life, work, money, food, and water, may fall into place.

“We didn’t have a good life before the earthquake. We don’t have a good life now. Maybe we won’t ever have a good life. But we live in hope,” Birsen sniffles.

Ayşe also finds hope in the aftermath of the earthquakes. A month later, her life gradually returned to normal, a testament to her steadfast belief in the ongoing struggle of life. Despite challenges and moments of sadness, she perseveres, recognizing that giving up would jeopardize not only herself but also her well-being and livelihood.

“Diamonds are made under pressure. Maybe it’s the same with us. We live for hope and faith because that’s the only thing no one can take from us,” Ayşe says.

Both Ayşe and Birsen now immersed themselves in the silent echoes of a million shared stories. They became living chapters in the unfolding history of a Turkey and a Syria that crumbled in a single day in February 2023.