Turkish community in Toronto scrambles to reach loved ones, send aid after devastating quake

The news that a powerful pre-dawn earthquake rocked southeastern Turkey and northern Syria made its way to Toronto Sunday night. With the number of dead and injured climbing, locals with ties to the region are scrambling to reach relatives and friends while trying to raise money for aid.

Local organizations launch fundraisers, ready supplies to send back home

Two workers at a take-out joint pose for a photo together.
Zaza Pervane, left, and Muhammet Yildirim, right, work at Zula Burger and Pizza, a west-end Toronto take-out spot. They say they're stuck watching from afar as friends and family deal with a devastating earthquake back home in Turkey. (Talia Ricci/CBC)

Muhammet Yildirim says he didn't think there was cause for worry when he first heard about the early morning  earthquake in Turkey.

Having grown up there, the Toronto resident says earthquakes are common. But when he started reaching out to friends and family back home and hearing about collapsing buildings and injured people, he realized this one was different. He's also worried about the people he tried to contact who didn't respond. 

"When you can't do anything, it's killing you ... you're just waiting," said Yildirim, his voice faltering. 

The news that a powerful pre-dawn earthquake rocked southeastern Turkey and northern Syria made its way to Toronto Sunday night. Locals with friends and family in the area are learning at least 3,400 people have died due to the 7.8-magnitude quake, with hundreds of people still believed to be trapped under the rubble from toppled buildings.

Zaza Pervane, Yildirim's co-worker at Zula Burger and Pizza, a Turkish take-out spot in Toronto's west end, says while he was lucky to hear back from his family, they still need to weather the cold without shelter and electricity.

"Just two weeks ago I was there and then I came back to Canada to work again. I'm so sad," said Pervane.

The stories Yildirim and Parvane are telling can be heard throughout the Turkish community in Canada, estimated to be about 65,000 strong. 

"The last few hours have been very difficult — just still trying to contact our family members and all," said Baris Kafadar, the vice-president of the Federation of Canadian Turkish Associations, who's based in Toronto.

Rescue workers and medical teams try to reach trapped residents at a building partially destroyed by an earthquake in Diyarbakir, southeastern Turkey.
Rescue workers and medical teams try to reach trapped residents in a collapsed building following an earthquake in Diyarbakir, southeastern Turkey, on Monday. A powerful earthquake has caused significant damage in southeast Turkey and Syria and many casualties are feared. Damage was reported across several Turkish provinces, and rescue teams were being sent from around the country. (Mahmut Bozarsan/The Associated Press)

But he says one silver lining has been the flood of support from different communities and organizations. Kafadar says the association's office is in the process of setting up a donation line and centre, where they can start collecting things like non-perishable food items and clothes to send to Turkey. 

"I'm proud of the support that the Turkish community is receiving both from abroad and within the community. There's a sense of solidarity," said Kafadar.

Ontario organizations rush to help 

GlobalMedic is working on deploying two teams: one to find and rescue survivors out of debris, and another to help distribute essentials like makeshift-housing, toiletries, water and food, says Rahul Singh, the executive director of the disaster relief charity, which is based in Toronto.

But despite their best efforts, Singh says international relief isn't always distributed equally. While international relief helps boost existing local capacity in Turkey to recover after the earthquake, it isn't the same for Syria, he says.

"You're going to see how this plays out, how people affected by a war, versus people that are part of a broader alliance, and how one group will suffer more than the others."

The quake struck a region that has been battered on both sides of the border by more than a decade of civil war in Syria. On the Syrian side, the swath affected is divided between government-held territory and the country's last opposition-held enclave, which is surrounded by Russian-backed government forces. Turkey, meanwhile, is home to millions of refugees from that conflict.

Torontonians looking to help those in Turkey and Syria can donate, volunteer, or help spread the word on fundraisers, Singh says.

WATCH | Turkey and Syria hit by huge earthquake:

Turkey and Syria hit by huge earthquake

4 months ago
Duration 1:55
Desperate rescue operations are underway in southeast Turkey and northern Syria after a 7.8-magnitude earthquake struck the region.

Reyhana Patel, the communications director at Islamic Relief Canada, says the Burlington, Ont.-based group has teams in the hardest-hit areas of Turkey and Syria assessing the situation. 

"The images that we're seeing, and some of the stories that we're hearing from our team on the ground have been quite devastating," said Patel, noting homelessness is one of the biggest challenges so far.

The organization has launched a fundraising campaign and Patel says it's received phone calls "all morning" from Canadians looking for information and wanting to help where they can. She expects the group will raise a large amount of financial aid in the coming days.

Toronto Mayor John Tory says his heart goes out to those who lost loved ones , as well as those waiting to hear from friends and family. The Toronto sign in Nathan Phillips Square will be dimmed Monday evening in honour of the lives lost, the city says.

"On behalf of Torontonians, our thoughts are with all those impacted by the devastating earthquake in Turkey and Syria," Tory wrote in a statement.

With files from Talia Ricci and Patrick Swadden