British Columbia

British Columbians fear for family and friends in Turkey and Syria after massive earthquake

People from Turkey living in B.C. are desperately trying to reach family and friends who were caught in a massive earthquake and consecutive aftershocks that have killed thousands.

Some have already confirmed deaths of loved ones, while waiting for news on others trapped in rubble

People atop a pile of rubble, one with a tool raised above his head as he tries to break away the rocks.
Emergency team members and others search for people in a destroyed building in Adana, Turkey, on Monday, in the aftermath of a powerful earthquake. (Khalil Hamra/The Associated Press)

The effects of a magnitude 7.8 earthquake that struck southern Turkey and Syria Sunday night are being felt in B.C., where people are desperately trying to reach family and friends caught in the disaster that has killed thousands, with many more unaccounted for.

Nural Sümbültepe is from İskenderun, a city of about one million people in southern Turkey on the Mediterranean Sea, near the Syrian border. She came to Canada to study in 1997, moved to Vancouver in 2005, lives in South Vancouver and works as a teacher.

Sümbültepe found out about the earthquake when a family member posted on What's App.

"This is a tragedy of a huge magnitude for my country, Turkey, but also my own family," she told B.C. Today host Michelle Elliot, her voice nearly breaking.

"My brother-in-law was confirmed dead. My eldest brother, sister-in-law, nephew, his wife and one-year-old baby are still under the rubble."

WATCH | Nural Sümbültepe says people in Turkey need help: 

Vancouver woman's family members trapped under rubble after earthquake in Turkey

4 months ago
Duration 1:07
Nural Sümbültepe says five family members, including her eldest brother and nephew's one-year-old baby are trapped under rubble in İskenderun, a city near the border with Syria.

Sümbültepe says her family members were sleeping in an 11-storey building that collapsed when the initial earthquake struck in the early hours of the morning. That was followed by two consecutive aftershocks, creating further damage to infrastructure and roads that made it even more difficult for rescue crews and family members in the region to search for survivors.

"The two airports are severely damaged, and the roads are not in great condition, so it's hard to get to my hometown right now," she said. Since İskenderun is located along the Mediterranean Sea, she hopes rescue groups and international help will be able to get there over water.

"They've been under the rubble for 14 hours. And it's winter. It's cold," she said on Monday morning.

"We need international aid as soon as possible."

Sümbültepe, who worked as a translator in the aftermath of the 1999 earthquake in Istanbul, said she initially made contact with some family members after she heard what happened. But they've since asked her and others not to call too often because they're not sure when they'll be able to charge their phones.

She worries the fallout from the earthquakes could get worse as some people in Turkey face the next few days with no electricity and limited access to food and sanitation services.

A man crouching on rubble buries his hands in his face, as people search for survivors in the rubble following an earthquake in Diyarbakir, in southeastern Turkey.
A man reacts as people search for survivors through the rubble in Diyarbakir on Monday, after a 7.8-magnitude earthquake struck southeastern Turkey. (Ilyas Akengin/AFP/Getty Images)

Syrian refugee able to reach mother, brother

Rafi Karjian, a Syrian refugee now living in Surrey, has family and friends who felt the earthquake back home. He said they described seeing rocks falling from buildings and structures collapsing around them.

Karjian's brother called him the moment the earthquake struck and told Karjian he was going to pick up their mother in Aleppo. He says his mother was terrified and struggled to leave her building, too scared to take the elevator and unable to walk down the 11 flights of stairs because of bad knees.

"I was kind of shaking, almost. Trying to call my mom and pressing the wrong number as I'm dialling," he said in an interview.

"As soon as I heard her voice, I was OK."

Friends of Karjian's in the same area told him they went to get in their car to drive somewhere safe but found a fallen balcony had landed on top of their vehicle and destroyed it.

He says people in Syria are worried about experiencing further earthquakes, similar to what happened in Turkey. 

The latest disaster adds to the pain and suffering of a decade of civil war that's also torn the country apart.

"People are out in the fields, just to feel more safe," he said. "They left their homes. They slept outside."

Minister says Canada will be helping out

Canada's minister of international development, Harjit Sajjan, was in Vancouver Monday for the Impac5 Conservation conference. He said Canada is committed to helping recovery efforts in the wake of the earthquakes but wants to make sure its response meets the needs on the ground.

"We have organizations that can respond immediately," he said, explaining that the initial response to calls for help is co-ordinated by disaster response groups affiliated with the United Nations that are backed by Canada. 

Sajjan says he's waiting on a needs assessment to ensure that any further assistance to Turkey and Syria coming from Canada meets the precise demands of the agencies that are on site.

"Once we have the needs assessment, then we'll be able to provide the exact support," he said.

The U.S., Russia, Germany and Israel were among many nations offering to send help. Turkey's ambassador to Canada said search and rescue resources, as well as emergency medical help, are what's needed most right now.


Josh Grant is a CBC News reporter based in Vancouver, British Columbia. He previously worked for CBC in Montreal and Quebec City and for the Nation magazine serving the Cree communities of Northern Quebec. You can reach him at

With files from B.C. Today and Jessica Cheung