MURRAY – The entire world has watched as the death toll in Turkey and Syria has climbed to tens of thousands after the earthquake that struck the region on Feb. 6 and subsequent multiple aftershocks. For one Murray couple, the impact of the tragedy has hit very close to home.
Dr. Ismail Karabas is a native of Turkey and is an assistant professor of marketing in Murray State University’s Arthur J. Bauernfeind College of Business, while his wife, Dr. Brittany Wood, is an assistant professor of political science in the Department of Political Science and Sociology. The two met years ago at Space Camp Turkey, where Ismail was an intern and Wood, a Louisville native and University of Louisville graduate, was a counselor. The camp was in Izmir, which is not far from Ismail’s hometown of Aydin and where Ismail attended the Izmir University of Economics.
After Woods lived in Turkey for more than two years, Ismail enrolled at the University of Washington in 2013 to earn his Ph.D. in marketing, and Brittany enrolled there the following year to earn her Ph.D. in political science. They married in 2016, and Ismail was hired at Murray State in 2018. Brittany then started her job at Murray State in 2020. They have two sons, 4-year-old Evren and 2-year-old Kayra.
The first earthquake occurred around 4 a.m. Feb. 6 in Turkey, and with a nine-hour time difference between here and there, it was around 7 p.m. when Ismail heard from his family. The quake mainly affected the southern and central portions of Turkey and northern and western Syria, so with Aydin being close to the northwest coast across from Greece, his parents and brother were unharmed. However, they were very concerned about Ismail’s aunt and cousin in Diyarbakir, which is about 850 miles east of Aydin.
“His cousin lives there and is a police officer, and (he and his wife) also have a young child,” Brittany said. “Ismail’s aunt also lives in Aydin but was there visiting and helping taking care of (her grandson), so when the news hit, everyone was very concerned (wondering) ‘Are they OK? Are they safe? What’s going on?’ Everyone was waiting for news from them, so it was probably from 7 o’clock (Central time) to 2 or 3 a.m. that Ismail was still not sleeping because he was just so panicked about family and friends who live in the earthquake region.”
“I heard about my other cousin and uncle – who live in a different city, Adana – and learned that my uncle’s house was fine, but my cousin’s house shook quite a bit and they were sleeping in the car,” Ismail said. “My other cousin, the police (officer in Diyarbakir), they were also sleeping in their car. A day or two later, they were moved into a local gym. They have a 3-year old, so the 3-year-old and my cousin and his wife and my aunt slept in a local gym for a few days.”
According to Reuters, the two Feb. 6 earthquakes were a magnitude 7.8 and 7.5 on the Richter scale, and there have been more than 7,000 aftershocks since then. Just Monday morning, a 5.6-magnitude quake shook southeast Turkey again.
“It’s not like it’s just one earthquake; there are so many tremors that have come after, so no one feels safe to go back home,” Brittany said. “Everyone is sleeping and living outside of their homes and in their cars or trying to find (one of the) number of safe tents that have popped up or try to find safe government-provided housing. Sometimes those are at school gyms or places that are only single-story.”
The most recent reports have listed more than 44,000 deaths in Turkey and nearly 6,800 deaths in Syria (along with more than 108,000 injuries in Turkey and 14,500 in Syria). Reuters reported that more than 160,000 buildings containing 520,000 apartments have collapsed or been severely damaged. As large as those numbers are, they don’t tell the whole story, and it will likely be a very long time before the full extent of the devastation is known.
“Those are the identified bodies,” Ismail said. “There’s plenty of unidentified bodies that are also outside the (rubble), but then we also have plenty that are still (buried underneath collapsed buildings).”
“The number of casualties is only just beginning,” Brittany said. “There are so many buildings that have not been excavated yet and so many people who have not been found yet. Not only that, but the infrastructure of these cities, including agricultural infrastructure, has been destroyed to such an extent that the UN is worried about a possible famine in the region. The number of people who’ve been affected by this is so much larger than just the count of casualties that we’re at right now.”
Ismail said that with about 13 of Turkey’s largest cities directly impacted by the earthquakes, approximately 20 million residents were immediately affected. Although he was lucky that no family members were killed or seriously injured, Ismail said he did hear about an old friend who had died.
“Two or three of these cities were hit the most, and by that, I mean nearly the whole cities were wiped out,” Ismail said. “So the government or whoever (else) couldn’t possibly physically get to all of them all at once, and that made everything worse because everything was happening all at once. (They have) no internet, no cell phone, no electricity, no water. It shook the world, and I know a lot of people feel really sad about it with us – my wife, for instance, is not a Turk, but I know she feels as bad as I do – but generally speaking, it hit all Turks. Even though this is a region in Turkey, and even if people have no relatives or friends living in the region, it still shook every Turk that is living in and outside of Turkey.”
“There’s not a single Turk who doesn’t know at least one person who has either died or been injured, or somehow displaced from their home because of this event,” Brittany added. “Everyone knows someone who has been affected.”
Ismail’s brother, Mehmet, lives about two hours away from their parents, Adem and Habibe. Although he lives outside the earthquake region, he is a social worker, so he has been helping victims.
“After the earthquake, everyone was trying to do something, so that’s what he could do,” Ismail said. “A few days after the earthquake, his whole social worker team from (his brother’s) city (traveled to) one of the cities that was affected and were trying to offer some mental health support and other help to the people that got affected.”
Ismail said he started a fundraiser for Turkish families who need help and has raised around $7,000 so far. He said many Kentuckians have contributed, and his father, brother and cousin have helped distribute the funds. Brittany said it was helpful that Western Union reduced his fees for sending money to Turkey and Syria.
“Some of my former students saw it on LinkedIn, and a lot of Murray State faculty and friends from Murray did help,” Ismail said. “A lot of my European friends have donated, and Brittany’s family in Louisville was very generous. Everyone chipped in a little bit. I wanted to be able to help directly because there’s a lot of help going there, but then that help is slow. You have to register and you have to wait in line, but I wanted this to be a direct way of helping someone in need. There might be $10,000 on the way for them, but ‘on the way’ doesn’t mean anything because right now, they need water, they need tents, they need diapers and clothes.
“A lot of these folks from the earthquake region have been put in different cities, and one of those cities is actually my hometown. There was a dormitory for students and they’ve moved college education remote, so those dorms are available. A lot of them were placed (in Aydin), so my dad has paid them several visits and he would see people without a jacket and kids without shoes because they don’t have anything yet. He was able to go there and take some of these folks to a local Old Navy and do some shopping.”
Besides native Turks and Syrians, Brittany said she and Ismail are also very concerned about the plight of Syrian refugees.
“The area of the earthquake is along the border of Syria and Turkey, so you have Syrian refugees who have already escaped unimaginable conditions and have been living in very precarious situations for the past 10 years as they have become migrants and are trying to figure out their own living situation in Turkey,” Brittany said. “There’s a high concentration of Syrian refugees in this area, and now, they’ve lived through this on top of everything else. And they also have family in Syria that they might not be able to be in contact with. It’s just an incredibly traumatic situation for Turkey as a whole, but I think globally, too. It’s a time that I think all Americans and people worldwide can come together to show support and love and help the Turkish and Syrian cause for recovery following these earthquakes.”
“If readers (of the Ledger & Times) can’t do anything, I would just ask that if they have any Turkish or Syrian friend, just reach out to them,” Ismail added. “Because right now, those folks are not OK. Even if they know nobody in the earthquake region, people from that region feel this on a different level, and it can get really tough by themselves and it can get lonely. So if you have a Turkish or Syrian friend or professor or student or anyone you know, I would really recommend (getting in touch). Anything like an email or text or call would go a long way right now.”
Anyone wishing to contribute to Ismail’s fundraising campaign may Venmo “Ismail-Karabas” or donate via PayPal at “ikarabas.”
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