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Students with ties to Syria, Turkey rally to aid earthquake survivors

Defining moment for longtime allies


Students with ties to Syria, Turkey rally to aid earthquake survivors

Ahmet Akbiyik and Ahmad Alsheikh on campus.

National & World Affairs

Students with ties to Syria, Turkey rally to aid earthquake survivors

Students Ahmet Akbiyik (left) and Ahmad Alsheikh have quickly mobilized to support relief efforts for Turkey and Syria after Monday's 7.8-magnitude earthquake killed tens of thousands of people in the region.

Photos by Kris Snibbe/Harvard Staff Photographer

Devastation worse than anything seen during civil war, says undergrad from Aleppo

Ahmad Alsheikh ’24 awoke on Monday to news of a giant earthquake hitting his hometown, a place already battered by conflict and displacement.

Thankfully, Alsheikh’s relatives in Aleppo, Syria, survived the 7.8-magnitude earthquake, though several watched their houses fall. “A lot of my family members described the earthquake as worse than anything that they’ve witnessed in 13 years of civil war,” Alsheikh said in an interview Wednesday.

Also hearing the news from afar was Ahmet Akbiyik, a Ph.D. student in political economy and government, an interfaculty program between the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences and Harvard Kennedy School. Akbiyik grew up in the ancient city of Sanliurfa, Turkey, or “the next city to the epicenter … where around 200 buildings have collapsed,” he said.

“My close family is OK,” Akbiyik reported Wednesday by phone. “But unfortunately, I lost several distant relatives.”

By nightfall Monday, both students were mobilizing to support aid and recovery efforts. Akbiyik opted to raise dollars independently via Go Fund Me, directing all contributions to Turkish Philanthropy Funds Turkiye Earthquake Relief Fund. He selected the nonprofit, in part, due to its base in the U.S. “That way people around me will be more familiar with it, and it will be trustworthy,” he said.

As of Friday morning, Akbiyik said, his fundraiser totaled more than $5,400, with an anonymous donor pledging to match up to $10,000.

Sam Saba.

“The concern with Syria is so many people are under the rubble in areas operated under various governmental and nongovernmental forces,” said Sam Saba, president of the Harvard College Society of Arab Students.

As for Alsheikh, plans fell into place Monday during a regularly scheduled Harvard College Society of Arab Students (SAS) board meeting. By Tuesday, Alsheikh and fellow SAS members posted their grassroots fundraiser to Facebook and Instagram, inviting all contributions via Venmo. Twenty-four hours later their efforts totaled roughly $5,000, with another anonymous donor promising to match up to $15,000.

All dollars raised by SAS will go directly to Basmeh & Zeitooneh, co-founded in 2012 by Yasmin Kayali, a master’s student in public policy at the Kennedy School. “This organization is dedicated to Syrian refugees outside of Syria,” noted SAS president Sam Saba ’23. “However, because of their connections, they are now able to work within Syria.”

In fact, SAS opted for a separate fundraiser due to the unique situation in Syria, which has received far less relief than Turkey. Aid to the country’s politically divided northwest has been stalled, the U.N. said Wednesday, due to blocked roads, harsh winter weather, and more. “The concern with Syria is so many people are under the rubble in areas operated under various governmental and nongovernmental forces,” Saba said.

But Basmeh & Zeitooneh (Arabic for “smile and olive”) has managed to set up shelters and deliver food rations in the region. The nongovernmental organization even rented heavy construction equipment to help pull survivors from the rubble, Saba said.

Also raising funds this week was the Harvard College Turkish Student Association, which counted nearly $30,000 in donations as of Wednesday evening. The group started soliciting Venmo contributions via Instagram on Monday evening. Now it is asking for direct contributions to several trusted charities, including Turkish Philanthropy Funds. Members are also involved with a benefit concert Friday evening at First Church featuring Turkish and Sufi music plus a little Turkish-flavored jazz.

Uniting these efforts is an urgent concern for friends and family back home. Noting that inflation has spiraled in Syria, with the U.S. dollar going extra-far against the lira, Alsheikh urged members of the Harvard community to give what they can. “A single dollar goes a long way,” he said. “Any donation can help buy a meal or water, let alone get people out of the rubble.”

Despite jumping into action this week, Akbiyik nonetheless takes a long view of the tragedy and the needs it leaves on both sides of the Turkey-Syria border. “Unfortunately, the infrastructure there has collapsed,” he said. “It will take time to recover. We’ll need these donations for a while now.”