Features

The new normal

International | Even though the streets are repaired, the road back to the way things were before Turkey's 1999 earthquake is nowhere in sight

Issue: "Schundler's bliss," July 7, 2001

in Derince, Turkey-Like a disaster movie running in reverse, Turkey's crumpled northwestern plain has been made smooth again. The superhighway running east of the Bosporus toward Izmit, buckled into a roller-coaster ride after a massive earthquake in 1999, is ribbon straight. Broken apartment buildings along the way are revived with new roofs and fresh coats of stucco. Buildings that were too far gone are now gone completely. Months and months of bulldozing swept clean all the debris, leaving gaping holes throughout areas once densely populated or, in some cases, making way for brand-new buildings. In much of the 60-mile-wide quake zone, visitors would not know a 7.4 magnitude quake hit this fault-ridden region-the worst in a century-unless they had been around when it happened. Repairing earthquake-damaged lives has been harder. Government officials believe more than 20,000 people died in the quake. Twice as many had serious injuries, and nearly half a million were left without homes. At the epicenter on the northern tip of the Sea of Marmara, near Izmit, life changed irretrievably. Quake damage cut production capacity in the heavily industrialized region in half. Unemployment still hovers between 30 and 50 percent. Lack of housing remains a persistent problem, only now being partially solved by a government lottery to distribute new subsidized rental apartments. Before the quake this Asian side of Turkey was poised between rural poverty and western development. Automotive factories and a refinery had begun to supplant farming and small businesses in the traditional, mostly Muslim area. After the quake many survivors fell into the cracks. In 45 seconds, they lost loved ones, homes, jobs or businesses, and, for many, all sense of community life. Relief groups and the government erected tent cities and soup kitchens, and overseas charity donations poured in to compensate for material losses. Coping with the long-term aftermath and the intangible losses is a different matter. "It's actually harder now," said World Relief country director Frank Bingham. "Expectations have been raised and people expected the hand-outs to continue. That's true on the part of both the people and the authorities." A wide range of needs persist, and most of the help has gone home. Almost two years after the quake, World Relief is one of a small handful of private organizations still working in the quake zone. It continues some administrative work in three camps set up right after the quake. It is also involved in post-trauma counseling and in helping widows and those in need of new jobs. Sustaining that involvement has meant shifting from disaster mode to development, something Mr. Bingham admits is difficult to pull off. "The two are normally diametrically opposed," said Mr. Bingham. In disaster mode, World Relief funneled medicine and other supplies to the quake zone via local churches. It shipped in over 750 prefab housing units and helped to jump-start feeding stations and water supplies in the camps that sprang up to house survivors. Food, water, and labor came from local churches. Now as long-term development needs set in, said Mr. Bingham, "part of our job is to tell people they must make the transition to helping themselves." So when residents in a camp near the quake-blighted city of Derince asked for indoor plumbing, Mr. Bingham told them they'd need to build it. World Relief built one prototype, a kitchen-and-bath addition, then helped residents in the camp of 1,200 find supplies before turning them loose to expand their own prefab units. Within a few months, nearly all of the two-room houses had indoor plumbing. Some at the same time added front stoops or full-length porches and gardens. Along the way, according to Mr. Bingham, the residents learned how to pool their labor, found ways to give extra help to widows (who make up half of camp residents) and the very poor, and secured roots in the new community. "They are adopting a new normality," he said. No one expected these camps to become permanent hillside fixtures. Tents hastily erected by the military gave way to the prefab units when rain and cold set in shortly after the August 1999 disaster. Even though the units have no heat or ventilation to combat searing arid summers and snowy winters, they have remained mostly occupied. While some of the campers were able eventually to move away to new housing or back into repaired homes, most have nowhere else to go. Half of the residents lost breadwinners in the quake; a third are Kurdish residents who have a hard time finding jobs and housing in even the best of times in Turkey. So everywhere in the Derince camp are signs of what the relief workers call "new normal": electrical lines strung from concrete poles, a bank of pay phones, a paved ball court, and a community center. Inside the center, where the smells of fresh paint and resin from new lumber hang in the air, eight women and three older girls are weaving rugs using traditional Turkish designs. Colorful yarns are draped over looms made from scrap two-by-fours. It is another joint venture. World Relief and Operation Mercy provided capital for the building, while local churches and camp residents carried out the construction. Residents themselves are running the rug-weaving business, as well as a day-care room for the weavers' young children. When the director pesters Mr. Bingham for daily snacks and juice to feed the children, Mr. Bingham waves him away, then suggests searching out a local source to donate refreshments. Mr. Bingham did not expect to become a fixture, either. He came as a volunteer shortly after the quake in answer to a solicitation from his own church in Great Britain. "I came here for a week, and I am still here," he said. For seven months he lived in a prefab unit in the Derince camp, where his skills as an engineer were in great demand. He was between jobs, one in England and another, with a consulting firm, waiting in the United States. Instead of moving to America, he eventually moved his family to Turkey. "When this earthquake struck, I think something happened in the spiritual realm," he says. "It is hard to explain the magnitude and response to this disaster." The challenge and the promise the disaster posed for Turkey's evangelical churches is the main reason Mr. Bingham and his organization have stayed on. World Relief president Clive Calver met with 12 church leaders and other Christian organizations in Istanbul three days after the quake. Mr. Calver was surprised then to discover a unified collection of Protestant evangelical churches. Most keep low profiles in a country that is 97 percent Muslim and strictly indisposed to open evangelistic activity. Clearly they were accustomed to working together under stress. If the earthquake was a disaster, disaster ministry has been largely a success story for the churches. Partnering with organizations like World Relief gave them clout with government officials accustomed to viewing isolated church activity with either quiet disdain or open hostility. The outpouring of practical help and perseverance from churches in Istanbul, Ankara, and Izmir, as well as within the quake zone, is also changing general perceptions about Christians. An independent fellowship in Izmir received permission to meet and legal status from local authorities, following years of harassment, after its prominent involvement in relief work. "We have had red carpet treatment from local officials. They allow us to do what we want and have cut through a lot of red tape for us," said Mr. Bingham, even though "government individuals we have worked with understand that we are a Christian relief organization." World Relief asks its staff and volunteers in Turkey not to hand out literature or engage in public evangelism. They can discuss their beliefs when asked and direct people with questions to the local churches. "We are watched very closely," said Mr. Bingham, "but we don't have anything to hide so that is OK." Both workers and residents are reluctant to put an end date on their time in the camp. Most are just waiting for a day when the new normal feels more like normal again.

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Mindy Belz
Mindy Belz

Mindy travels to the far corners of the globe as the editor of WORLD and lives with her family in the mountains of western North Carolina. Follow Mindy on Twitter @mcbelz.

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