hands holding candles at a vigil

Princetonians provide support to Turkish and Syrian earthquake victims

The Princeton University Undergraduate Turkish Students Association organized a memorial on the front steps of Nassau Hall on Feb. 10, 2023, “to mourn and remember the lives lost in the devastating earthquake in Turkey and Syria.”

In the hours, days and weeks since two major earthquakes devastated Turkey and Syria, with the death toll approaching 50,000, Princeton faculty, staff and students have been offering their assistance to the millions impacted in the aftermath.

Through fundraisers, donation drives, awareness initiatives, academic panels and more, Princetonians have shown their immediate support for the worsening humanitarian crisis in those countries.

“The crisis in Turkey and Syria is heartbreaking, and the scale of suffering is terrible,” said President Christopher L. Eisgruber. “But the way our students, faculty, and staff come together in times of crisis — to organize, to aid and assist — is remarkable. I think we all find inspiration from their example to do what we can now and consider how we can be of service always.”

students gathering outside Nassau Hall for a vigil

The memorial outside Nassau Hall included remarks from undergraduate and graduate students and faculty members, a prayer, and candles that were lit to memorialize the earthquake victims.

“I’ve seen my share of disasters, and this is something that is beyond even my understanding,” said Onur Günay, lecturer in anthropology and Princeton graduate alumnus who has spent years researching conflicts, displacement and violence in Turkey. “The region that has been impacted by the earthquake has been also affected by the war in Syria, refugee crisis, ethnic conflict and multiple tragedies over the last decade.”

Needs on the ground are urgent and significant — everything from basic shelter in the form of tents to medical supplies for amputees — and will likely continue for years to come. “The scale of this human-made disaster is much bigger than what is immediately visible to the public. I think this requires not simply charity, but long-term solidarity,” Günay said.

Günay has partnered with academics and researchers at Princeton and other universities to raise awareness and funds for the earthquake victims. Together they have collected more than $200,000 to be distributed through the Research Institute on Turkey in New York.

The Undergraduate Turkish Student Association was among the first to mobilize on campus after the earthquakes on Feb. 6. The group hosted a memorial to mourn the earthquake victims in the immediate aftermath.

Its members also led a campus-wide donation drive with volunteers from the Graduate Turkish Student Association, Arab Society, Balkan Society, Muslim Students Association and Intercultural Students of America, collecting 150 boxes of items which they transported to the Turkish Consulate General in New York City.

“We couldn’t have done it without so many people wanting to be there and working so hard,” said Sena Çetin, vice president of the Undergraduate Turkish Student Association. “I think a lot of that is because we were so motivated, because a lot of us are personally affected. And so we want to do everything that we can to help people out. We wouldn’t be able to sleep otherwise. This has been a very emotional time.”

She added: “We want people on campus to be aware that this is affecting people around them, that this is not just an event in a faraway land. It’s very real, and people really do appreciate solidarity. They appreciate it when others are aware and actively acknowledge what is going on.”

In the immediate aftermath of the earthquake, assistant deans of student life reached out to Turkish and Syrian students to offer support and resources.

The Office of the Dean of Undergraduate Students worked closely with the Turkish Students Association, assisting with logistics and preparation of promotional materials for the donation drive and the vigil.

Princeton’s Office of Religious Life has been extending pastoral care to those affected by the earthquakes and assisting in the delivery of material aid. The Princeton Chapel congregation immediately donated $20,000 dollars to survivors through Save the Children.

The John H. Pace Jr. ’39 Center for Civic Engagement has organized two community gatherings to help Princetonians process the tragedy and share information about relief efforts. The second session takes place this Friday, Feb. 24, at noon. The Pace Center also maintains a webpage with information about the earthquakes and a list of relief groups where people can make donations.

“There is a deep sense of care and responsibility in the ways that students, faculty and staff have been organizing towards relief efforts,” said Kimberly de los Santos, the John C. Bogle ’51 and Burton G. Malkiel *64 Executive Director of the Pace Center for Civic Engagement. “They have supported each other, they have increased awareness on campus, and they have reached out to their larger networks as well.”

The Princeton School of Public and International Affairs (SPIA) will convene a panel, “SPIA Responds: Turkey/Syria Earthquake and Disaster Relief,” on Thursday, Feb. 23, addressing the short-term challenges of earthquake and disaster relief to the region. 

The panel will be moderated by Miguel Centeno, the Musgrave Professor of Sociology, professor of sociology and international affairs, and vice dean of SPIA. Discussants include Burcu Balçık, professor of industrial engineering at Özyeğin University in Istanbul; Doug Mercado, MPA ’07, an international humanitarian affairs expert; Shelly Culbertson, MPA ’04, associate director of the Disaster Management and Resilience Program, RAND Homeland Security Research Division; and Alkin Kaz, class of 2023, president of the Undergraduate Turkish Student Association.

University Health Services will sponsor a listening circle facilitated by Laura McCann, Psy.D., and Auralice Graft at noon on Friday, March 3, at McCosh Health Center to support students who have been affected by the disaster.

“Princeton is a global community where people are connected — whether through family, friendship, travel or scholarship — to all parts of the world.  A tragedy such as this reverberates broadly,” said Aly Kassam-Remtulla, vice provost for international affairs.

Kassam-Remtulla said that even without direct links to the victims, Princetonians have shown compassion and empathy to the challenges faced by those in need. “We can all imagine something like this happening to us or someone we know, and that understanding about the fragility and preciousness of human life inspires us to want to help those who we know are suffering so deeply,” he said. “Events like this reveal our shared humanity.”

In recent years, Princetonians have participated in or organized humanitarian responses to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, among other disasters. After Russia invaded Ukraine last year, the Princeton community showed solidarity and support for Ukraine in myriad ways, and the University welcomed scholars from both countries. On the domestic front, Princeton responded in multiple ways to the murder of George Floyd and earlier to Hurricane Katrina through both short-term and long-term commitments and interventions, Kassam-Remtulla said.

In addition to offering counseling and other support services during mass tragedies, and hosting panels to offer commentary and provide insights, the University as an institution tends to follow the lead of its community, Kassam-Remtulla said.

“This soon after a tragedy, it is often difficult to know exactly what that will look like, but I can imagine that some members of the Princeton community will want to be involved in direct rebuilding efforts or supporting those who have been displaced by the earthquake,” he said. “For others, this event might influence the syllabus of a class they teach, the topic of their senior thesis or dissertation, or lead to new academic research collaborations. The central administration’s role is to support these efforts through coordination and amplification.”