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Inside tent cities, Turkey's quake survivors wonder when they'll have a home again

Fatma Guner has spent the days since the Turkey earthquake living in a tent city in Arsuz, a town in Hatay province. "I honestly can't stay here, it's really crowded," she says.
Gokce Saracoglu/NPR
Fatma Guner has spent the days since the Turkey earthquake living in a tent city in Arsuz, a town in Hatay province. "I honestly can't stay here, it's really crowded," she says.

HATAY, Turkey — The 7.8 magnitude earthquake and powerful aftershocks that rocked southern Turkey and northern Syria earlier this month have led people to form new communities of sorts — tent cities spreading across what once were open spaces.

One of these new cities is in Arsuz, a town in Turkey's Hatay province. On a recent day, people came out of their tents and formed a line for lunch – the cooks were serving doner kebab, a classic Turkish dish featuring meat grilled on an open spit. A vat of tomato sauce bubbles away nearby.

Fatma Guner, 60, watched the line grow, but didnt stir from her seat at the edge of a very large communal tent, packed with cots and temporary beds. She says her home in the nearby city of Iskenderun is still standing, but she wouldn't feel safe sleeping there right now.

She's desperate to get out of this camp, where she's been sleeping in a large, crowded communal tent filled with strangers.

"I'm sick, I have heart disease, and I could get an infection very easily, my immune system is very low," she says. "I honestly can't stay here, it's really crowded."

She says other relatives, including her 91-year-old father-in-law, have claimed the only tent allocated to the family, and she's not even sure who she should ask for a tent of her own.

"All I want is one tent," she says. "In my garden, put my tent in my garden. Here, there is no hygiene."

A lack of tents is just one of the complaints against the government's response to the earthquake, which left tens of thousands of people dead. The ruling AK Party initially said it had enough tents, but as evidence of shortages began to mount officials said they were working to acquire more.

The government has also promised to build 270,000 new homes – built to the highest safety standards and located away from fault lines – within a year. That pledge has been greeted with skepticism by opposition politicians and other critics.

But regardless of what's being promised for the future, families in Hatay province left homeless by the earthquake say proper shelter remains an overriding concern.

"The building was sideways"

In another sprawling tent city in Antakya, in central Hatay, Ali Bilir watches his young son and daughter play with their four songbirds, chirping away in two small cages. He's a former bus driver, and he says in some ways his family was probably lucky to have survived the earthquake with only a few injuries.

He says the force of the quake and aftershocks left the family home in Antakya lying on its side.

"So, the building was sideways, I wasn't there, three kids and their mother got out. My 12-year-old daughter is in the hospital, she had a leg injury," he says.

The earthquake left tens of thousands of people dead and destroyed countless buildings, including this one in Antakya, Turkey.
/ Gokce Saracoglu/NPR
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Gokce Saracoglu/NPR
The earthquake left tens of thousands of people dead and destroyed countless buildings, including this one in Antakya, Turkey.

Bilir says he thinks this tent city is "the most secure place," because it's a large open space with no tall buildings near enough to crush them if there's another earthquake. He says he's not sure where they might live next, but it could be in a shipping container.

"According to rumors we've heard, they're going to offer us either some money or a container. We want a container. We're going to live there for a while, and then, if they build it, maybe I can have a home," he says.

Turkey says the first of five ships loaded with what officials are calling "living containers" and other humanitarian aid should reach the area by the first week of March.

"I put my 90-year-old mom on my back"

In another corner of the tent city in Antakya, Ihsan Sevinc watches over two of his six children. Six-year-old Elif is busy with crayons and a coloring book, giving a camel a coat of the proper shade of brown.

Sevinc grows emotional as he recalls carrying his mother out of their damaged house, not stopping to put on his socks or shoes.

"Barefoot, without any socks, I put my 90-year-old mom on my back, and my wife took these two kids, and that's how we barely made it out, stepping on broken glass and pieces of rubble," he says, his eyes welling with tears. He says his mother made it to Izmir to stay with a sister.

When asked what he needs most urgently right now, Sevinc says instantly, "a tent." He and his family have been sleeping at a friend's house some 25 miles away, returning to the camp each day for food – and in hopes of getting their own tent.

People displaced by the earthquake line up for food at a tent city in Antakya, in Turkey's central Hatay Province.
/ Gokce Saracoglu/NPR
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Gokce Saracoglu/NPR
People displaced by the earthquake line up for food at a tent city in Antakya, in Turkey's central Hatay Province.

Despite the hardship, however, Sevinc vows that this disaster won't drive him from Hatay.

"I will never leave this place," he says.

"If I die, I will die here. It's my hometown, where I had all my childhood memories, my youth – my life. I will never leave here."

But like other sleeping in tents across southern Turkey and northern Syria, he knows that where he ends up may not be within his control.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Peter Kenyon is NPR's international correspondent based in Istanbul, Turkey.
Gokce Saracoglu
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