Gaziantep, Turkey – It has been a week since a massive earthquake instantly changed tens of thousands of Turkish and Syrian lives.
A 7.8-magnitude quake erased thousands of buildings across 10 Turkish cities, devastating entire villages across the border in northern Syria as well.
The death toll surpassed 33,000 in both countries on Sunday, making it the deadliest earthquake in decades in the region.
Rescue teams and assistance were taking longer than expected because of winter weather and heavy damage to the roads.
As civilians complained, many supplied their own aid as they could, organising a response neighbourhood by neighbourhood to help and support each other.
A few hours after the quake, restaurant owners and bars opened their doors distributing hot tea, bread, and a safe place to protect victims from the cold.
At Kebabçi Yalçin, in the neighbourhood of Gazimuhtar in Gaziantep, owner Mehmet Taşdelen immediately went to open his ground-floor restaurant as a refuge for those who just witnessed such a traumatic experience.
“In this street there are only high buildings, people were running in complete terror in every direction,” Taşdelen tells Al Jazeera.
“When I saw that, I ran to open my restaurant at around 6am on the morning of the big quake. I started a couple of fires as we all stood together, waiting for the ground to stop shaking.”
In the coming days, he left the door of his restaurant open for anyone needing a warm place and meal.
“If we didn’t die in the quake, we might die of hunger or cold,” says Ahmet, 64, who preferred not to share his last name, as he picked up a pot of hot noodles from the restaurant.
He parked his car not far from Kebabçi Yalçin, where he’s been sleeping for days with his wife, too scared to come back to his house after the trauma.
In Gaziantep, despite not being as heavily impacted as elsewhere in the region, humanity amid the tragedy seems to have taken over.
At Café Sempre, in Ordu Caddesi, the owner offers blankets and free meals all day.
“I immediately came to my bar as soon as I saw all those people in the street looking for a safe ground-floor place,” says Ferdi Haydargil, 44, as he serves some hot cups of tea. “It’s our moral duty to offer anything we can to support each other.”
Over the past few nights, about a dozen people have taken shelter in his bar, including a Turkish-Italian couple, who long before the quake had their first date there.
The happy memories they shared here are now haunting them. After nights of sleeping in a car, scared their house was unsafe, they saw this place open and decided to spend one night with other people.
“We never thought we would prefer the pandemic to what we are experiencing now,” says Ayhan Kahrıman, 29, as he holds his girlfriend’s hand.
‘In this together’
Noticing the infinite bread lines but few places for hot meals, Huseyin Özyurtkan, 50 and his wife Burcu, 42, have been preparing hot meals around a partially damaged castle area over the past four days.
Despite the situation at home, which is unsafe for them to return to, they decided to actively help other people in the same situation.
“We’re going through really hard times and we all have to be in this together and show our strength,” Özyurtkan says.
His wife decided to spend her birthday, which occurred on Sunday, helping those in need. “Nothing is more important than thinking about others right now,” she says as she tightens her hijab and goes back to work.
Syrians and Turks come together
As Özyurtkan goes around distributing food with his car to those he encounters on the street, he says “these days there’s no difference of nationality, ethnicity, beliefs and appearances”.
Over the past decade, Gaziantep has become a mixed city, where one-third of the population is Syrian with those having fled the ravages of Syria’s devastating war.
Despite social and economic friction, coexistence has become part of Gaziantep’s identity, in peaceful as well as tragic times such as this.
These days, divisions are disappearing and Syrian and Turkish volunteers work side by side to help protect Gaziantep and its people.
Nidal Memik, a 22-year-old from Aleppo, decided to volunteer with the Ministry of Family to build tents for displaced people.
As a Syrian displaced by the war as a teenager, he empathises with what people in his adopted home are feeling these days. So he wanted to offer his help and knowledge on how to cope with the trauma and consequent stress.
He is currently volunteering with Ezgi Ala, 28, a social worker from the Ministry of Family, who is trying to support Mohammad al-Sabah, a displaced Syrian father of two.
“He still doesn’t have a tent and we’re going around from one tent to another to look for a spot,” Ala says.
“We have all been equally affected and we have to stick together to support each other and provide for each other,” she adds.