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Escaping the Turkish earthquakes – and carefully moving on

Nureen Sulaiman, a foreign exchange student from Thailand, escaped the deadly earthquakes in Türkiye. (Lina Köksal/YJI)

ISTANBUL – Far from her family in Italy, foreign exchange student Gloria Pegorari was living with a host family in southeastern Türkiye when devastating earthquakes struck the country in the middle of the night.

‘‘There was a sound, pretty much like a howl,” Pegorari said, recalling her experience.

Then she felt her bed shaking. Never having experienced an earthquake before, she had no idea what to do, but she managed to take her phone with her as she ran.

Leaving the room, she saw her host family was also scared, especially for their two little boys.

After the family realized what was happening, they quickly prepared their bags.

Darrell Hui, an exchange student from Hong Kong.

Pegorari and two other foreign exchange students who survived the massive quakes spoke with Youth Journalism International about their experience, the trauma that followed and what they hope might change to save lives in the future.

‘‘My perspective on life and its value changed a lot, said Darrell Hui, a 16-year-old student from Hong Kong. “A friend of mine lost a close someone to this earthquake. It’s just so … sad and frustrating.’’ 

Hui said he now treasures life more than ever.

When the first quake struck on Feb. 6 – killing tens of thousands of people – all three took shelter in different places.

‘‘After this earthquake and aftershocks, my host family found a solution to protect themselves. We all stayed in the car for two nights,’’ Hui said, adding that while trying to sleep, he could still feel the intense shaking for minutes at a time.

Nureen Sulaiman, 17, of Thailand, and her family remained at their home since the base was secure enough in the apartment.

Pegorari and all her family went to the grandmother’s home since its construction was safer.

“The first day I couldn’t come back to the house, I couldn’t sleep and if I did try I always thought about the earthquake,” said Pegorari, who said returning to her host family’s home to gather her belongings was scary.

“I needed to go back to Adana and take my clothes and it was a big challenge for me. When my family told me I needed to enter the house again, I had a panic attack. I was scared when I thought about the earthquake,” Pegorari said.

Hui kept thinking about his brother, who was studying with him in Türkiye. He said he worried about his brother every day when he went outside.

‘‘Did you hear about the second earthquake happening two or three days ago? It happened in the same location,” said Hui. “It just keeps hitting again and again.”

Hui’s brother has since returned to Hong Kong, but the three who spoke with Youth Journalism International opted to stay in Türkiye.

“There was a plane that can take me and one other Italian to Italy, but just because of the earthquake I didn’t want my opportunity to end, so we moved to Istanbul,” said Pegorari. “But we had the choice to stay or go.”

All three students transferred to Çevre College, a private school in Istanbul. 

“In the first week of Istanbul, I was still scared. One time I felt like something was happening but it was just me imagining. Right now it is so much better,” said Pegorari. “I feel safe here but I am scared. I am ready if something happens.

“On Monday another earthquake happened. I was not scared but worried because it can also happen here. I knew some people in the earthquake area and I worry about them. I call and text them. They are okay, but they are scared,” Pegorari. “They thought that the earthquake was done, but it happened again which made them worried.’’

When asked about how they could handle a future earthquake, Sulaiman and Pegorari said they thought they could survive, but said they are not psychologically ready for another one.

Even though they escaped physically, mentally they were still there.

YJI reporters with the students they interviewed. From left: İpek Eser, Lina Köksal, Naz Mergen, Nureen Sulaiman, Darrell Hui, Beren Deniz Öcek, Sena Naz Ekşi and Gloria Pegorari.

Asked what others can do to make the experience easier, Pegorari said there is plenty of information in the news and no need to question her.

“Don’t talk about it,” Pegorari said. “Asking me will just depress me more. I don’t want to talk about what happened. It is really scary, we all need to stay calm.”

But Pegorari and Sulaiman stressed the importance of being ready in case the unthinkable happens.

“Prepare an earthquake bag and stick together,’’ said Sulaiman.

Hui said he hoped that after these earthquakes, people will understand the problems created by cheap construction.

‘‘When people buy [cheaply built structures], there’s something they should know. When the company builds them, they tend to use cheap materials. These buildings are the vital reason why so many people lost their lives to these earthquakes,” Hui said.

He also suggested that children should learn about earthquake preparedness in school.

‘‘I believe that the government should implement lectures to the education system so that we all are properly prepared,’’ said Hui.

Even though they all had different reactions and different responses, all three students mentioned that they wanted to get past this and continue with their lives.

‘‘I want to move on, I want to focus on the now,” said Hui.

Under the leadership of Youth Journalism International Correspondent Lina Köksal of Istanbul, this story was reported and written by YJI’s Turkish Reporters Naz Mergen, Beren Deniz Öcek, Sena Naz Ekşi, İpek Eser and Köksal.

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