Content warning: This article discusses death.

On February 6, an earthquake measuring 7.8 on the Richter scale destroyed parts of southern Türkiye and northern Syria. Hours later, a 7.5 magnitude earthquake in Türkiye added to the destruction. As of February 24, more than 50,000 people have died as a result of the earthquakes. The death toll continues to rise because some people remain trapped in the debris while others remain homeless in subzero weather. 

On February 21, a 6.4-magnitude earthquake and a second measuring 5.8 hit Türkiye’s southern province of Hatay. According to Türkiye’s interior minister, Süleyman Soylu, at least three people were killed and 213 wounded. 

More than 600 Turkish and Syrian citizens are currently enrolled at U of T. According to numbers from the 2021–2022 academic year, Türkiye is the eighth most common country of origin for U of T international students. 

Student reactions

On the day of the earthquake, Yasmin Din — a Turkish fourth-year UTSC psychology student — received a call from her father, who was in Ankara, the capital of Türkiye. Din recalled that her father sounded “very anxious and stressed,” and told her that an earthquake had just struck the area. As they were ending their phone call, her father told her that another earthquake had begun and the building he was in had started shaking.

While her father remained safe, Din told The Varsity that she had lost a friend in Malatya, one of the provinces in Türkiye most severely hit by the earthquakes. She also has another friend — a U of T alum — whose father was among the casualties of the earthquakes. “After 10 days, [rescuers] were finally able to pull the dead body of her dad out of the debris,” said Din.

Sude Bakal — a Turkish second-year UTSC management student — also told The Varsity that one of her mother’s friends passed away from the earthquakes.

“Being away from my home country is causing emotional distress itself, and we have friends who lost their homes in Turkey,” wrote Elif Mercan Akyildirim — a Turkish third-year UTSG mechanical engineering student — in an email to The Varsity. “I am in deep sorrow.”

Silent protest at UTSG

Following the earthquakes, U of T students have since organized fundraising and donation events to send aid to Türkiye and Syria. Turkish and Syrian students at U of T also organized a silent protest on February 16 against what they call a lack of action from U of T. 

At the silent protest, individuals handed out flyers that read “UofT has done concerningly little to help both our efforts and the general well-being of its student body.”

A U of T spokesperson wrote to The Varsity that the University of Toronto community continues to “follow the humanitarian response, as well as local support efforts from students, staff and faculty.”

Over 100 people attended the event, which was also supported by the U of T Turkish Students’ Association, UTM Turkish Students’ Association, and the Syria Solidarity Collective, a Toronto-based grassroots organization that seeks to establish a secular democratic republic in Syria. 

Organizers chose to hold a silent protest in order to reflect U of T’s silence on the issue. “Our silence does not represent a lack of emotion, but an excess of it. Silence is what the university gives us,” said Can Ay — a Turkish second-year UTSG mathematics and economics student — in a speech he gave at the protest.

The protest started at Queen’s Park, where protestors gathered in a half circle and held up a large, white banner that featured scenes of devastation from the earthquake along with the words, “Your Silence is Loud.” Some protestors also held up scenes of the earthquake’s destruction on cardboard papers.

Protestors then marched toward Simcoe Hall, where the Office of the President is located. Along the way, they stopped on the steps of Sidney Smith Hall. Outside the president’s office, organizers gave speeches, then invited attendees to stand in silence for two minutes to mourn the earthquake’s victims. In the end, protestors left all their banners and cardboard papers at the steps of the office. 

Beliz Zorbozan — a Turkish second-year UTSG industrial engineering student — attended the silent protest. She didn’t have any family in the region where the earthquakes happened, but has volunteered after school to help organize the protest. 

“I feel very proud,” Zorbozan said in an interview with The Varsity. She explained that she didn’t know most of the other Turkish students prior to the earthquakes, but after spending hours with them organizing the event, “I’ve become close with them, and we just bonded together in this time of need.” 

She said that if the university had been more willing to supply resources, “we could have done so much more.” 

Students’ demands

“We, as Syrian and Turkish students of U of T, could not catch our breath and grieve for our victims,” said a participant in a speech at the protest. “We noticed the lack of resources dedicated to supporting affected students.” The Varsity did not obtain the participant’s name.

In an interview with The Varsity, UTM Turkish Students’ Association founder Talha Çelik called for U of T to provide financial assistance and academic support to Turkish and Syrian students. “There needs to be more than a statement,” said Çelik.

Meanwhile, Bakal called for special extensions on course assignments for Turkish and Syrian students. She said that at UTSC, Turkish students sometimes skipped their classes and assignments because their priority was to raise donations for earthquake victims. She and her friends tabled every day at the Bladen Wing from 9:00 am to 7:00 pm and even volunteered in warehouses on the weekends to pack donations. Bakal said that some professors were understanding and gave extensions to students who were affected as well as those who were volunteering, but some professors did not. 

Multiple Turkish students also criticized U of T for not providing them with support for their donation drives. “U of T didn’t even… help us; they put active obstacles in our way,” said Ay in an interview with The Varsity. 

He highlighted that students had initially used a student lounge in the Lassonde Institute of Mining Building to store donations. After two days, however, they had to relocate because their stored items prevented caretakers from cleaning the space, according to Ay. 

Students then moved donations to a public study space in the same building but were asked to vacate the space after one day. Students stored the donation boxes in the basement of Myhal Centre for Engineering Innovation and Entrepreneurship for two days until February 17. 

Turkish students also said that the majority of university officials they had sent emails to about the earthquake did not respond to them. Ay said that out of all the deans, college supervisors, provosts, and other university officials that Turkish students have emailed, only “a handful” responded to them, all of which just referred them to mental health resources.

“We are hurt and feel like we don’t belong here,” wrote Akyildirim. “We had to send countless emails so that [university officials] could post something about what is happening.” 

“There’s a lot that [U of T] could do, starting with creating a fund for donations,” said Muge Berber — one of the attendees at the silent protest and a Turkish first-year life science student. 

U of T’s response 

In an email to The Varsity, a U of T spokesperson confirmed that the “very small number” of U of T students currently in Türkiye on university activity are safe, while no U of T students are currently in Syria on university activity. More than 170 U of T alumni are living in Türkiye and Syria.

On February 6, Joseph Wong, U of T’s vice-president, international, published a message addressed to the community. “On behalf of the University of Toronto, I would like to express concern and sympathy for those here and abroad who are affected by this disaster,” he wrote. On February 22, Wong encouraged affected students to access the university’s emergency grants.

The University of Toronto Mississauga Students’ Union, Scarborough Campus Students’ Union, and U of T Graduate Students’ Union have also issued statements of solidarity with those affected by the earthquake.

A U of T spokesperson also highlighted the student groups across the three campuses that had been fundraising and collecting donations. The statement read, “We encourage groups to post their events on the Student Organization Portal to broaden awareness.” 

Donation collection

After the earthquake, Ulaş Güler — a Turkish UTM student studying economics and communication, culture, information and technology — and other Turkish students formed a group to support victims. “This is a time that we need to be… united, and caring for all of those millions of people that are under the rubble right now,” Güler said. 

According to Güler, the group tried to raise awareness of the damage from the earthquake by putting up posters around campus, but UTM policy prevented them from doing so because the group is not a UTM-recognized club. The academic society or club non exclusionary policy highlights certain requirements for posters going up around campus, including the size, how and when they are put up, and being approved and “stamped” by the UTM Centre for Student Engagement.

Güler said that this policy has limited fundraising efforts. He said that the International Education Centre is one of the only groups, including university services, organizations, and student groups at UTM, willing to help the students raise donations, but the centre cannot accept cash or e-transfer donations, which are sometimes easier for students to give. 

Through five bake sales hosted by Turkish students across the three campuses, the students managed to raise approximately $22,000. Outside organizations that the students have negotiated with have matched many of these fundraising efforts, so Güler believes the donations will total around $50,000. 

“The student community has been amazing,” Güler said in an interview with The Varsity after a bake sale at UTM on February 13. He highlighted that a lot of students had attended the bake sale and they had sold 90 per cent of their items that day, but students had also dropped by to donate. Individual students donated up to $150. 

Güler explained that the Turkish fundraising donations will not only go toward general relief efforts, but also toward students in cases where “their families are affected by the earthquake.”

He explained that once U of T students donate their fundraised money to non-governmental organizations, “it’s [also] going to supplies or the families that need [it] in that specific area.” Güler highlighted that these non governmental organizations cannot aid the people that are leaving the affected cities and relocating to different places. “They’re trying to start a new life, basically, because they’ve lost their families, homes, and ways of income.”

Next steps

After the silent protest, Ay told The Varsity that students will wait for U of T to respond to their demands. If U of T communicates with them, Ay said that Turkish and Syrian students will “try to meet in the middle with [administrators] and see what we can do to further our efforts.”

Meanwhile, Din said that the Turkish Students’ Association at UTSC plans to host a larger fundraising campaign in collaboration with other Turkish students’ associations across U of T and other clubs at UTSC.

She also said that Turkish student associations across U of T are considering asking the Dean’s Office or the Office of the President for emergency funding and waiving tuition fees “to some extent” for Turkish international students.

“We probably have families who are not able to provide their kids’ international tuition fees anymore, because they have been probably affected,” she said.