One of the most intense, scary and moving experiences of my life happened when I was twenty-five years old, in graduate school studying theology. Seven students from my school and others spent two months in Turkey learning about the language, people, culture, and history of the land. When I joined the tour I little suspected that I would barely miss one of the worst natural disasters in history, that I would have to decide whether to travel back through Turkey days after a devastating earthquake, or that I would be given the opportunity to help save a woman’s life.
While I was there I made a friend in Istanbul, a woman a couple of years younger than me named Neşe. At the end of July I traveled to Croatia for a month, but made plans to spend five days with Neşe and her family when I came back through Istanbul on August 20th. On August 17th an earthquake measuring 6.7 on the Richter scale struck north-western Turkey, its epicenter about fifty miles south east of Istanbul. Estimates vary widely, but at least 17,000 people died in that earthquake, and tens of thousands more were injured. Istanbul wasn’t struck as hard as cities and towns closer to the epicenter, but there was still significant damage and casualties.
I watched the news from the little seminary in Osijek where I was working and wondered if I should change my plans to return. I decided to place my chips on a phone call to Neşe: If the call went through and she and her family still wanted me to come, I would. Miraculously she answered, and a couple of days later I found myself on a taxi from the Istanbul airport, driving past the makeshift tents along the side of the road that were the first sign of the tragedy.
Neşe and I wanted very much to help, and the first couple of days I was there we went to spots in Istanbul where there were injured people, or where they were still digging people out of the wreckage, both alive and dead. I’ll never forget the smell of dust and dead bodies. We talked to several people whose friends and family members were still missing.
But there were already plenty of people to help in Istanbul, and I felt like we were just in the way. Then Neşe, though she was Muslim, heard of a church group that was going down to Golçuk, near the epicenter, to help with relief work. She and I signed up, got our shots, and the next day piled into cars with friendly Turks, and headed down to the scene of even greater tragedy.
It was on the drive to Golçuk that we witnessed a man being saved from the rubble. Police stopped all traffic and told us to turn off the ignition so that they could hear his voice, which was weak after five days of lying under the wreckage of his apartment building. We all jumped out of the car to watch as rescuers carefully raised the last cement block and lifted the man onto a stretcher. The crowd let out a cheer, and I snapped a picture of the row of cars stopped in the street, and the passersby-turned-observers celebrating the triumph of this one life.
When we arrived at Golçuk we went to the camps where tents had been set up for people whose homes had been destroyed by the earthquake. It was raining and had been for several days, and in each tent were people who had lost not only their homes but members of their families. Shock, grief and blood met us again and again, and we did our best to not only give out the food and supplies we had picked up from the relief organizations, but to listen to people’s stories and pray for them.
Those in our group who had medical skills did what they could for the injured, and I wished again and again that I had medical training so that I could do more for the people. Neşe was amazing — at twenty-one years old with no medical training she jumped right in and did what needed to be done, binding up wounds and even setting a broken leg. I was in awe of her energy and passion. She was studying jewelry design at the time, but would later go to nursing school.
In the evening Neşe called me over to a tent where an elderly lady was lying on a makeshift bed. Neşe discovered that the woman’s entire family had died in the earthquake, and she was unable to eat the food that the relief workers delivered to her. In her intense grief she hardly cared, and had not eaten in five days. Her bed was soaked with rain and urine. Neşe and I found the leak in her tent and pulled a tarp over it, changed her clothes and made her a new, dry bed, and found some softer food for her.
The woman perked up at our attention, and was especially excited to see an American there. There was a rumor going around that Turkey had turned down America’s offer for help, despite the fact that Turkey’s own resources were not sufficient for the rescue and relief work. I was never able to find out if there was any truth to that, but I was embarrassed again and again at being greeted as a hero simply because I was American. The Turks were working day and night to help each other, and I felt that my small contribution didn’t deserve the attention it was getting.
This woman was adamant in praising me, however, and a funny scene played out as Neşe and I helped her to eat. Neşe sat behind her, helping her to sit up and giving her bites of food, and I sat in front, facing her. The woman chattered away to me in Turkish despite Neşe’s explanation to her that I couldn’t understand Turkish. I nodded and smiled. Suddenly I saw Nese shaking her head at me and making a sad face, so I quickly made a sad face. Then Neşe smiled and nodded, and I smiled and nodded. We continued like that for quite a while, the woman talking, me following Neşe’s cues in responding and Neşe popping food into the woman’s mouth. Later we found medical help for her, and the next day they took her to the hospital. Neşe went to visit her in the hospital after I had returned to America, and emailed me that the doctor said we had certainly saved her life.
It was an overwhelming experience for me, but two things struck me in particular. The first was how my circumstances gave me not only privileges but responsibilities. As an American I was given recognition I did not deserve, and it made me aware of the opportunities I did have: education, world travel and options about how to spend my life. It also struck me how easy it was to accept the compliments and advantages, as if I deserved them, simply because of my nationality and — *shudder* — the color of my skin. I’ve experienced this many places that I’ve traveled, and it has made me more aware of the sometimes more subtle white privilege back home in the States. It takes humility and perseverance to notice that I’m being treated differently, and to not simply accept that as my due.
The second was how healing compassion and attention could be. The people in those tents needed practical help and resources, but they also needed to tell their stories and express their grief, and they needed to know that they weren’t just faces in the crowd. It was our attention as much as the food and dry clothes that brought the woman out of her grief and enabled her to live. I didn’t have the skills to help with physical injuries, but I was blessed to feel that I could make a difference just by being there and listening.