More than 70,000 people were received in this region in southern Turkey within a week. However, earthquake survivors are aware that this shelter is only temporary.
Long tables lined with toys, biscuits and cold drinks await them upon arrival at the airport in Antalya, a coastal city in south-west Turkey on the Mediterranean coast. The victims of the February 6 earthquake that devastated parts of the south of the country as well as the north of Syria are received there by volunteers. With its beaches, cliffs and climate popular with holidaymakers, Antalya is a top tourist destination in Turkey. But since the disaster, the region has seen an influx of increasing numbers of earthquake survivors. In total, more than 72,000 people have already been able to find accommodation in the province, according to the authorities, who rely on the many hotels in the area. Among the first to respond is the Özkaymak Falez Hotel, a five-star hotel now housing 96 victims.
“Just under an hour after the earthquake, our network opened rooms in hotels in Mersin, Adana, Van and Diyarbakir,” said Hüseyin Çiçek, CEO of Özkaymak Hotel Group. The solidarity then spread to facilities further west, including this imposing seafront complex. The first “guests,” as the manager calls the victims he is hosting, were a group of teenagers in Hatay province who were taking part in a nearby martial arts competition from Antalya attended the time of the earthquake. “We said to ourselves that these young people would have lost everything, their house, maybe family members,” says Hüseyin Çiçek, “there was no question that they would return there, in the middle of the rubble.
Hüseyin Çiçek, CEO of the Özkaymak hotel group, at his home in Antalya (Turkey) on February 16, 2023. (PIERRE-LOUIS CARON / FRANCEINFO)
In the days that followed, about twenty families scrambled to the door of Hotel Falez, often after an arduous journey by bus or car. “The roads were destroyed because of the earthquake, we drove eighteen or twenty hours,” recalls Ali, 49, who fled Antioch with his elderly parents and part of his family. They first slept in a tent for two days before being transported to Antalya. “It was very cold at night, it was unbearable,” says the man in the wheelchair. We lost everything. The things I have, the clothes I wear today, everything was given to me here.”
A free reception, but not sustainable
In order to accommodate the victims of the disaster, Hotel Falez does not receive any outside help or government subsidies. “We’re doing well financially, so we’re doing it from our own resources,” emphasizes Hüseyin Çiçek. Displaced families can eat for free at the hotel buffet and have access to a room on the ground floor specifically for storing donations of clothing. “Usually this is our store,” explains the boss. We emptied it, but we kept that shop idea so that people can come and help themselves without it looking too much like humanitarian distribution.” The system aims above all to preserve the dignity of the victims. In addition to shelter and food, the displaced families are receiving medical care and psychologists have come to visit the younger ones.
“Our children were already shy, but they haven’t talked much since the earthquake,” say Aziz and Sehnaz, a couple who had to leave the city of Adana, a hundred kilometers as the crow flies from the earthquake’s epicenter. Sitting on the hotel terrace with their 13-year-old son Kenan and their 3-year-old daughter Melinay, they reminisce about their trip to Antalya. “We just wanted to get out of the earthquake zone,” says Aziz, who worked as a salesman. His company loaned him a car, which his family stayed in before setting off with no specific destination. “I saw on a map that Antalya is outside the risk zone,” recalls Sehnaz. She found this accommodation in Falez thanks to the dedicated page of a website dedicated to hotel reservations. “We are relieved to be here,” admits the family, who, however, remain “completely in the dark”.
Sehnaz (left) and Aziz (middle) fled the city of Adana with their two children to find refuge in Antalya, Turkey, on February 16, 2022. (PIERRE-LOUIS CARON / FRANCEINFO)
“The government has made announcements, they have promised to give money so that we can rebuild our houses, but we have no further information,” Aziz laments. Like all other hotel guests, his family is registered with Afad, the official Turkish aid organization. But the prospects are limited. “Everyone here has just one question on their mind: ‘How are we going to get home? And what do we do next?’” Sehnaz confides. The Antalya couple are looking for alternative accommodation and, with little hope, are considering contacting distant cousins.
“Rents are very high, especially in the Antalya region. Do we have to live in a trailer?”
Aziz, 51, earthquake survivor
The family knows they can stay at the Falez Hotel until “the end of March,” as assured by the hotel group’s CEO. And then ? “It will be complicated for us, Hüseyin Çiçek slips. The season continues and we already had reservations from abroad, for tourists and groups.” The strong mobilization of hotels in the sector, which were sometimes closed during the winter season, as the Antalya governor (in Turkish) pointed out, has its limits . “The situation is more difficult in small hotels,” says Hüseyin Çiçek. “We should think about helping pay for the rooms or at least paying the heating and electricity bills.” The hotel manager is waiting for “government solutions” on this point.
A sports club became an accommodation center
In order to welcome the victims of the disaster, the main actors in Antalya are acting together. On the morning of the disaster, AntalyaSpor club, which brings together multiple disciplines including football under its red and white banner, decided to convert its facilities into dormitories and living quarters. Since then, “230 people have already passed through our structure and 140 are currently staying with us,” explains Mustafa Türker, Vice President of the Club. The company was set up “very quickly,” he says. “Mutual help is one of our sporting values, and as a club we can do without bureaucracy in order to be able to act as quickly as possible.”
Donations collected for the victims of the February 6 earthquakes in Turkey and Syria, kept at the premises of the Antalya Football Club (Turkey), February 16, 2023. (PIERRE-LOUIS CARON / FRANCEINFO)
AntalyaSpor employees transformed the buildings in just a few days. The volleyball team office has become a coordination center. The young players’ relaxation lounge is now a playroom for the 39 children in need. While the coaches take care of the families, the club doctor monitors the injured on a voluntary basis. On the ground floor, boxes with prams are stacked next to stacks of diapers and various hygiene items. Upstairs, clothing donations are being sorted by two staff members who have put their files on hold to help survivors.
“For my part, I’m responsible for around twenty people who sleep in the gym,” explains Can Bekrioğlu, who is otherwise responsible for the club’s international relations. “You can ask me anything. I can find out what they want in a single phone call.” With resolute steps, he walks around the building, shakes hands, absorbs news. Within a week, the young man has forged links with some of the victims, “those who want to talk,” including Hilal, 22, a construction worker, and his cousin Dogukan, a 25-year-old student.
“We live from day to day”
“All the help we need is here,” says Hilal, who was unable to take anything with him from the rubble of his house in Antioch. Several families are talking in Turkish or Arabic around the young woman in the club’s canteen, which has been converted into living space. The atmosphere is heavy, weighed down by the images of devastated cities playing on a continuous loop on the television installed in one corner of the room. “We live from day to day,” Dogukan breathes, his face somber. He keeps trying photos on his cell phone, which he shows without hesitation, as if to prove what he says. We see victims placed in body bags right in front of their collapsed building. The young man sees himself as “lucky”: he has not lost any relatives.
“What scares us most is the future, the fact that we cannot project ourselves.”
Hilal, 22, earthquake survivor
By helping those displaced by the catastrophe, the employees of the AntalyaSpor Club take the measure of the psychological trauma. So many invisible wounds to deal with. “For example, we avoid throwing toys because the sounds of shocks are very scary for children,” explains Elif, 24, a volleyball coach in normal times. With bags in hand, she returns from a trip to the playground, where she noticed two behaviors in the youngest ones. “There are those who don’t really understand, who are happy that we care so much about them,” she says. And then there are those who are mute… But we can see their concern.” In order to best support smaller disaster victims, a good practice booklet published by Unicef circulates within the club.
“These people lost everything, they often only had their car parked on the street. Some came in their pajamas because the earthquake happened early in the morning,” says Can Bekrioğlu with a suddenly blank look. However, AntalyaSpor will have to whistle the end for the device in the near future. “After all, we’re just a club and the competitions will resume in a few weeks,” explains the management. Like hoteliers, the sports federation also hopes for the presence of the government when it comes to handing over solidarity.