Shaken from sleep in the early hours of February 6 by the first tremors of the earthquake, Ahmet Erkan did not understand what was happening at first. It was the sound of his three children screaming in their rooms that shocked him and his wife Fatma into action.
“My kids started yelling. [The shaking] was very strong. We didn’t know what to do,” Ahmet said. Fatma added: “The earthquake threw us to the ground, and we could barely walk. It lasted for so long. I’m grateful we were able to get out.”
Moments later, standing in the street outside their apartment block in Hatay, southern Türkiye, their initial relief turned to horror as they watched the entire building collapse into rubble.
“Screams were coming from all sides. There were people crying. Those who managed to get out were trying to save the people inside the collapsed building,” Ahmet recalls.
With no time to even put on their shoes before fleeing their home, Ahmet realized the desperation of their situation. “I did not know how to protect my children or what to do. It was very cold, there was very heavy rain. We became soaked,” he said.
“We have nothing left.”
But their own plight was forgotten when Ahmet learned that his brother Mustafa’s nearby building had also collapsed. “I can’t describe what I felt at that moment. I left my wife and children in the car and ran to my brother’s house. The building was in ruins when we arrived. We tried so hard…” A rescue team helped Ahmet in his frantic efforts to reach Mustafa, 35, and his family. His brother’s wife and daughter were pulled alive from the wreckage, but tragically both Mustafa and his 11-year-old son Tahir died in the collapse.
Surrounded by his family – including his mother, older sister and her children, who mercifully survived – Ahmet pulls up a black and white selfie on his phone taken by Mustafa, surrounded by woodland with Tahir nestled closely to his side.
“At the moment, we are still trying to understand what we are going through; we have nothing left. Now there is only today,” Ahmet says.
The pain and loss visible on the faces of Ahmet and his family are shared by millions across southern Türkiye and northern Syria affected by last month’s deadly earthquakes. More than 55,000 people are confirmed to have died in the two countries, with many thousands more still missing.
Many who survived have been left homeless or too traumatized to return to their homes. In southern Türkiye, among the 15 million people living in the 11 provinces devastated by the earthquake are some 1.74 million Syrian refugees. But the death and destruction have affected every community, with whole cities and towns left in ruins.
Ahmet and his family are staying in one of the Temporary Accommodation Centers in Hatay originally built to host Syrian refugees but now being used by the authorities to shelter both Turkish and Syrian earthquake survivors. Having lost everything, they are grateful to occupy one of the family-sized prefabricated containers arranged in two-story rows.
“We are all human, we were all affected by this earthquake,” Fatma said. “We all have pain and problems. God help everyone. There is no difference between Turkish people and Syrians. We are all in a very difficult situation.”
“There is no difference between Turkish people and Syrians.”
“We came here, and thankfully they gave us a place to stay, clothes, food, and a place to sleep,” Ahmet added.
At the request of the authorities, UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, has supported the government’s earthquake response from day one as part of the wider UN relief effort. The agency has provided emergency supplies including thousands of tents, mattresses, high-thermal blankets, and heaters for distribution to those affected by the Disaster and Emergency Management Presidency (AFAD), the Ministry of Family and Social Services, and the Presidency of Migration Management, which manages the Temporary Accommodation Centers.
On March 11, UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi visited the center in Hatay where Ahmet and his family were staying and expressed his condolences for their loss. He was there as part of a five-day visit to earthquake-hit areas of Türkiye and Syria to meet survivors and the authorities and humanitarian staff responding to the disaster.
“There continues to be a strong need for humanitarian help, both here in Türkiye and in Syria, where I was just a couple of days ago,” Grandi said. “Everything in cities like here in Hatay needs to be rebuilt – homes, shops, schools, health centers. Everything has been lost.”
With many families across the region still searching for missing loved ones, the daunting task of rebuilding shattered homes and cities remains a long-term one. The urgent priority is meeting the needs of survivors, which go beyond the material.
Ahmet and Fatma pointed to the profound effect the disaster had on the psychological well-being of their children. “My little girl wanted to stay in the car – we convinced her that the container would not collapse,” Ahmet explained.
At the center, there are organized activities to occupy their children’s attention and help them forget their ordeal for a time. Their eldest daughter Merve says she has made friends that she plays with during the day.
But back in the family’s shelter, she is subdued and smiles nervously as she says: “I’m afraid to even talk about the earthquake.”
The damage inflicted by this disaster, both visible and invisible, will take time to repair, Grandi concluded. “It will take months, maybe years, to give people back not only their homes but also their livelihoods.”
Originally reported by UNHCR, The UN Refugee Agency