Letter to the Editor: Stanford’s neglectful response to its affected students following the Turkey earthquake

Opinion by Defne Genc
Feb. 13, 2023, 9:21 p.m.

I saw the emergency alert pointing to a 7.7 earthquake in my home country on Sunday evening. Turkey lies on several fault lines, but I thought it had to be a typo. 15 minutes later, my Twitter feed was flooded with cries for help: “I’m here at this address, save me. I can’t breathe and my brother’s unconscious,” said one tweet. “My mother lives in this apartment, please find her, someone please go check on her,” said another, “I’m under the rubble and it’s freezing, I don’t know where my family is.”

After days of failed search and rescue, most of the people on my feed were dead. The first 48 hours were the worst part, as the people who called Turkey and Syria home waited while search and rescue efforts failed. It snowed on tens of thousands of my people until they died of hypothermia. We watched it happen live, on Twitter, as they begged the government, or anyone, to save them. I’ve never felt so desperate. I begged publicly on Instagram for donations maybe a hundred times while Stanford’s official Instagram account shared celebratory images of “Flower Friday at White Plaza.” That same Friday, during those Valentine’s Day celebrations at White Plaza, we were collecting donations for survivors a few feet away. 

No one around me knew about the earthquakes until I had told them. I have lost weight, cried through my classes, felt sick and lost sleep. Many other Turkish and Syrian students have been affected in the same way, as we wait and hope the death toll won’t reach 200,000. People who knew would look at me and tell me I “look tired” or ask me if I’ve had “a long night out” despite knowing that I’m from Turkey. None of my professors reached out before I told them I was affected. Although Markaz and Bechtel have been very sensitive and helpful, they are only able to reach a select few Muslim and international students and can’t spread awareness among the rest of the student body.

When people hear my perspective, they tell me they never knew it was this bad. This is because of Stanford’s tardy and nonchalant statement that only showed a death toll statistic, sent out five days after the earthquake. We reached out to the Dean’s Office numerous times before that to no avail. Those around us were left to think there was nothing that should cause disruption in our lives. For what may be the most devastating crisis of the decade, we had expected all of our professors to send out announcements to their classes and offer their support.

What Stanford decides to prioritize as an emergency worth telling its community has severe consequences. Does it not affect faculty caring about their students, awareness within our student body, and where donations from influential people go? We have a non-negligible Turkish and Syrian student body who worked and grieved tirelessly all week, and our expectations from Stanford were far higher than what we were given.

This negligence is even more hurtful when I think about those who have lost more than I have. Here’s a quote from my friend Abdul Omira ’23: “My community back home is torn apart. I lost a few extended family members so far, as well as seven childhood friends, and the rest of my family and friends are displaced again with nowhere to go. I had an assignment due. Literally no Stanford officials reached out.” The Stanford community is full of kind students and compassionate faculty, and Stanford failed to give them the opportunity to understand and respond quickly to our situation.

Part of Abdul’s extended family lives in Antakya, Turkey. They moved there after the start of the war in Syria. I met Abdul when I coincidentally saw him post about his family and friends in Antakya on Instagram. He was looking for a crane to dig his family out — they were still hearing their voices from under the rubble, but there was a chance they wouldn’t make it. After finding a friend who had contact with rescue teams in the region, I waited to see if Abdul’s family could be saved. They had heard their voices three hours prior, but time was running out. 

The next morning, I saw a text from my friend: “Don’t text him. They found their corpses. He knows.” Abdul reached out to me later that day and told me that while his relatives had died in that building, the team we sent there found a little girl alive. “Just the fact that we found that child is enough for our whole family,” he told me. I was crushed by his heartfelt response, as well as how no official channels from Stanford even offered their condolences despite having him on record as a Syrian citizen.

“I think if Stanford had put together a more robust way of getting us together, we would have been a few hours early,” said Abdul. Although we can never know, I wish I had known about his situation as soon as the crisis hit and not three days after.

Delaying this news points to a massive disregard for our mental well-being. It shows us that we’re seen as second-tier world citizens and a negligible part of the Stanford Community. It shows us that it is okay to wait five days to acknowledge our suffering when we’ve been doing everything we can to send money back home. Had Stanford acknowledged the magnitude of the earthquake during these first five days, we could have saved more people and received sympathy for being unable to do our academic work.

During times like this, “I’m trying to be okay. How about you?” is a common way to respond when asked how we’re doing. I’m trying to be okay with what happened back home, but I’m not okay with how Abdul, I and all other Turkish and Syrian students are being treated on this campus. I beg Stanford to try not to dismiss their failure just for the sake of preserving the school’s image, and I urge other students in similar situations who’ve been neglected in the past to speak out. Finally, I ask you all — students, alumni, and faculty— to let me borrow your voices and show that this level of negligence won’t be tolerated in our community.

For those of you who have reached out to your Turkish and Syrian friends or students, tried to help alleviate their responsibilities, and taken the time to learn about the magnitude of what had happened, thank you. You can access our Stanford fundraiser on the TSA’s Instagram account @stanfordtsa, and please share this article widely to show your support.

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