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Middle East Kavitha Dispatch

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COREM: Mending the Shaken Lives of Turkish Youth

February 19, 2000


"Have you ever been in an earthquake?"

"No," I almost feel bad just admitting it.

"You are very lucky. You have good chance."

As I walk through the rubble of old apartment buildings and the ruins of what once were homes here in Yalova, Turkey, I realize just how lucky I have been. Yalova, on the southeastern shores of the Sea of Marmara, has always been a nice getaway from the noise of Istanbul and Bursa. Or at least it was before August 17th, just after 3 AM, when Yalova and its neighboring towns were shaken by an earthquake of such magnitude that this once-small town found itself on the front page of newspapers around the world.

No, I have never lived through an earthquake. I cannot even begin to imagine what it must be like to wake up and watch the earth break up underneath you; to see your home turned into dust; to run to safety, only to find that there is no safe place -- there is no escape. An estimated 9,000 of Yalova's 60,000 people died in the earthquake. I can hear about the statistics and take pictures of the sad ruins of the city, but I can never really understand the trauma of living through an earthquake of this magnitude.

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I had a wonderful time at COREM with the kids from the tent city.
For the past few weeks, Brian and I have been visiting our friends Berrin, Aysun, and Konstantine who started COREM, a children's rehabilitation center, in one of Yalova's tent cities (see sidebar). Don't miss Brian's dispatch about the students of Mithat Pasha High School and their experiences with last year's earthquake. We've been learning a lot about the long, slow process of trying to rebuild after such a disaster. This last visit, though, was more special than the rest because I got to meet some new friends. Some wonderful girls who, despite the fact that I just met them and despite the language barrier, were willing to share with me, and all of you, some of their experiences during that awful night six months ago.

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Berrin slips in front to strike a pose with my six new friends! (From back L to R: Yasemin, Sultan, Mersiye, Ayse. Middle: Ebru and Esra.  Front: Berrin)

Esra, age 12
Ayse, age 15
Yasemin, age 15
Ebru, age 12
Mersiye, age 17
Sultan, age 14

Ayse and Yasemin attend the same high school, and Mersiye and Sultan are old friends, but other than that, these girls all lived very separate lives in this large town before August 17th. Since then they, along with 10,000 other people, have shared a space smaller than one square mile. Esra, Ayse, Yasemin, Ebru, Mersiye, and Sultan came to live in the Red Crescent tent city. Red Crescent is just one of the many tent cities that sprang up around Yalova in an attempt to help find temporary housing for all the thousands of people whose homes were destroyed, or who were just too terrified to re-enter a building, even if it wasn't destroyed.

COREM, the children's rehabilitation center, was established two weeks after the earthquake, by Berrin, Aysun and some friends. They realized the tremendous need for support for youth who survived the earthquake. Many of these children saw close family members and friends pass away, and lost their homes. COREM gave them a space where they could not only receive psychological therapy and counseling, but could also draw, make music, and just play with other children to regain a sense of childhood and happiness. Through art and friendship many young people who seemed lost to depression were able to regain a sense of stability, purpose and love.

In late August, the tent city had over 10,000 people trying to find a dry place to sleep, food to eat and medical supplies. But today, there are only about 500 people remaining, as families move either back to their old homes (if they weren't destroyed too badly), to an interim, pre-fabricated trailer house built by the government ('pre-fab'), or to the south -- away from the earthquake zones all together.

Even though most of them don't live in the actual tent city anymore, these girls still come back to visit COREM whenever they can, because of the wonderful support they received there and the wonderful friendships they had made -- like each other! I was lucky to be here on just one of those days.

"You are very lucky that you have never been in a quake," all the girls agree.

"We were very afraid ... it was so bad, we couldn't even move. We were stuck," Yasemin recalls.

"You couldn't leave during the quake -- it was impossible, the doors were shaking, and were shut closed," everyone adds in their frightening memories. "After 10 minutes, there was a few moments of quiet calm. That was when we GOT OUT OF THE HOUSE!"

"My sister woke me up, and then two minutes later the TV came crashing down!" said Ebru.

"I felt I was stuck between life and death for 40 minutes," remembers Mersiye. "10 minutes before the earthquake, I was thinking about going to the bathroom to use the toilet, but I decided against it, to just stay in bed. Then the earthquake came, and my building collapsed. The bathroom was demolished, the roof caved in, but somehow my bedroom was okay. It was a miracle. Now I'm afraid to go to bathrooms!" she laughs at how silly that fear must seem.

"Things are so much better now," says Berrin, who has come to know these girls very well over the past six months of volunteering with COREM. "In the beginning everyone was so scared. It was very difficult to talk about the horrifying night of the earthquake. But now things are better. Now we can talk about it, and even joke about it."

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Six months later, there is still so much to rebuild in Yalova.

"Yeah, in my apartment building, some oil had spilled on the stairs, so everyone was slipping down the stairs as we tried to escape!" laughs Esra.

"At first, I didn't think it was an earthquake," said Ebru. "I thought it was a bomb or something. I thought it was the end of the world."

"Some people said the world had finished. The religious Muslims said that we must all cover our hair, for the end of the world is here."

"I didn't think so. I think it came from the ground, not Allah," said Mersiye. "I didn't cover my hair."

"Muslim people shouldn't have to cover their hair," said Esra. "We must have good hearts and good thinking."

magnitude -Greatness in size or extent
rehabilitation -Restoration to good health or useful life, through processes of therapy and education
pre-fabrication -The manufacture of something in advance, especially in standard sections that can be easily shipped and assembled

One of the eeriest things my friends told me about was that most people in the area could sense the quake coming.

"The days before the quake, everyone was feeling different," they all recalled. "We knew something was coming. The weather was different; the stars were different. They were shining very bright they seemed very near. It was difficult to breathe too, the air pressure was so high. It was very, very hot too ... a different kind of heat than normal."

"Do you believe that each person has a star? " asks Esra. "I do now. The night of the earthquake there were many shooting stars. So many stars fell from the sky, and so many people passed from their lives."

"There were so many stars that night. Walking along the sea you could see them so close," remembers Berrin. "I didn't even want to go to sleep that night, it felt so strange. I finally made myself sleep by around 2:30 AM."

"Many people, including my father, saw streaks of red lights in the sky that night," said Ebru. All the other girls nodded in agreement, remembering various friends who had reported seeing the same thing.

"My neighbors told me that during the time of the quake, they looked at the sky, and the stars would shine for a few seconds, then fade out to black for a few seconds, then shine again," said Mersiye.

"You can't imagine the sound of the wind that night," explains Asye attempting to recreate the scary howling noise of the wind.

"The ground also made a very loud noise," explains Berrin. "A terrible, scary noise, that not everyone can remember, because many have blocked it out."

"All day long that day, there were a lot of quakes, and the noise from the ground was still terrible."

"All people were afraid. Nobody knew what to do. We couldn't go in the homes, so we waited in the cars, the streets, on the beach."

"When I speak of the quake, I remember I don't want to talk," said Ebru. "But now the feeling is a little better. To talk about it is like rehabilitation."

"Schools didn't open again until October," said Yasemine. "But on the first day back at school ... it was a Monday, there was another quake and so the schools closed again for two more weeks."

"When the second quake came, all the teachers were saying to us, 'don't worry, don't worry', trying to rush us out of the building, but then they started to panic too, and in the end it was the students who had to say, 'don't worry' to the teachers!"

"Many didn't go back to school," explained Ayse. "Some parents didn't want their kids to go back inside buildings. Some stayed at home to help in some way -- cooking for people or handing out supplies."

"When we went back to school, we were very scared, so we didn't listen to our teachers. The teachers were scared too. It was very difficult. We had very bad lessons."

"After the quake, I went to help search for people missing," Mesiye tells me. "I didn't believe that my friends were dead, so I went to the buildings."

"She saw friends dead, in very bad shape, crushed under buildings," explains Berrin making a motion with her hand implying that some of them had had their heads cut off.

"So I went to the hospitals, to try to find some better feeling, but there I saw more awful things, more dead friends and family ... " Mesiye remembers. "All nights I had bad dreams of the earthquake, but in the dream I can't go out. I can't escape and I stay inside ... then I wake up."

"She had to go to Istanbul for rehabilitation," explains Berrin. "Here in Yalova, we were very short on doctors, and her case was too difficult. Now she is better, and is back here living with her family."

"The first day living in the tent, after the earthquake, it was very difficult. The second day was also," remembers Ebru. "But then my friend suggested that I visit COREM. My heart was weak, but after spending time at COREM things became more easy. We would draw, talk with a counselor, play games, make plays, have picnics ... I learned to love better. We have a lot of friends."

"We also helped in needed ways," remembers Yasemine. "We made 450 packets for students with school supplies like pens, pencils, papers ... "

"Yes, all people here had such bad feelings. Here we learned that there is happiness," said Mesiye.

Tent City

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Those still living in tent cities have reinforced tents, hoping to keep warm during the cold winter months

Moving from a two- or three-bedroom apartment or house to a tent is not an easy transition. At first the tent cities were made up of makeshift tents, just some plastic to block the wind at night. As more international relief agencies poured in support, the tent cities built up, and today the tents are reinforced, have electricity, beds and gas heating. There are no kitchens in the tents, but basic, free meals are provided by the Red Crescent. There are clean central bathrooms, with public toilets and showers. But things haven't always been so nice.

Can you imagine having to live in a one-room tent with your entire family for an indefinite amount of time? As hard as it may seem, after a trauma as intense as the earthquake, at least the tent cities brought people together in an environment of support.

To learn more about the efforts of earthquake relief volunteers in Turkey and about the joys of volunteering anywhere, read Brian's Making A Difference dispatch.

The girls all remembered all the fun they had had together, focusing on the games, the theater, the activities, the nights sleeping together in the COREM tent. It was really nice to see that such good memories are possible from such a difficult period ... the weeks after the earthquake. Those weeks saw people coming together, helping each other in ways they never had before. The tent city was a community, full of people sharing hardships and supporting each other.

"Before the quake I would never speak to little children or help my family take care of the children -- I was too busy hanging out with my friends," Mesiye laughs. "Now, I always play with them, and help out however I can during the day."

"I had two friends who I fought with once, and I swore I would never speak to them again. Now we're speaking again ... those little fights don't mean anything we now know."

Still Just Teenagers

Refugee girls sing one of their favorite pop songs.

Click here to listen.

You must have the RealPlayer.

A lot has changed since the earthquake, but when it comes down to it, a lot about being a teenage girl remains the same. My friends talked about Turkish pop stars they love, along with some international stars like the Spice Girls and Shakira. They love most Hollywood movies, although it took a while before many were willing to enter the old movie theatre again. I haven't been to the movies in Yalova myself, but they explained to me that it's big theatre with seating that goes down pretty deep. Since so many people hold fears of being inside tall buildings after the earthquake, a lot of people stopped going to the theatre.

"Now we will go. We don't live in fear. That is not a life."


p.s. - Please e-mail me at

Abeja - Pergamum: City of Death, City of Life
Brian - Five Days, Twelve Lives... A Look Into One Rescue Worker's Journal
Brian - Fifteen Thousand Years Old and Going Strong
Brian - Volunteering: We Get By with a Little Help from Our Friends-and Complete Strangers

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