Earthquakes and Refugees

One. Earthquakes:
Monday’s giant earthquake in Turkey has me thinking back to the time when I was in Turkey. And to a six-week stint building “houses”—4×5 meter A-frame buildings without electricity or plumbing, in villages without electricity or plumbing—in the wake of a 1966 earthquake well to the north and east of the current quakes. It was rougher, less populated, and distinctly rural country. I can still see the terror in the village women’s eyes as they ran from makeshift covered kitchens when a small after-tremor hit. I was a 23-year-old Peace Corps Volunteer on the greatest adventure of my life.

“My” earthquake was tame compared to what happened in Turkey and Syria on Monday. Tame because it was not a 7.8 quake, tame because it was in a very rural and sparsely populated region of the country, not in an area of huge population centers like Gaziantep, Adana, Malatya, Diyarbakir in Turkey, and Aleppo in Syria. In 1966, the victims were lucky because it was August and not February. Survivors—and the number of deaths and injuries was paltry compared to this week’s quake—were fortunate because the government stepped in immediately and offered families $200 to relocate with family or friends anywhere in the country—or told them they could stay home and live in a new, 4×5 meter wooden A-frame house with a tin roof over their heads.

There were of course sad stories, tragic stories in Hinis, in the province of Erzurum, where we worked, and more in the epicenter at Varto. But Monday’s quake dwarfs the Varto Earthquake of 1966 completely. And if some government or international organization offered $200—or today’s equivalent—and a bus ticket to somewhere else, there would soon be no somewhere places to go. The latest news says that some in Syria have already moved more than 10 times with war and famine before these earthquakes.

Two. Refugees:
There were 3.6 million Syrian refuges in Turkey before the earthquake, and millions more in Jordan and Lebanon. Turkey has an additional million refugees from Africa, Central Asia and the rest of the Middle East. (This earthquake’s range of destruction coincides eerily with the little pocket of the Middle East that we learned in school to call “The Fertile Crescent”—the place that gave us wheat, peas, barley, and pistachios; sheep’s wool and cow’s milk.)

World-wide, the number of refugees is staggering. There are displacements in countries like Syria and Afghanistan due to Civil Wars and civil unrest, but the much larger numbers count people—often families of men, women, and children—fleeing across home borders to nearby countries to escape drought and famine, political and religious zealotry. Many families pool resources to hire boats or smugglers to get one member safely to a faraway country in Europe or America where he or she can establish a beachhead and bring others.

According to the United Nations, we have passed 100 million world-wide total displaced people, meaning that over 1.2% of the global population have been forced to leave their homes. Among these people are over 32.5 million refugees. Refugees are those who have crossed international borders and cannot return to their home countries.

Three. Immigrants:
In school, we learned that we are a “nation of immigrants,” but we now know that the nation was formed by a small but determined group of purposeful European political, religious, and economic immigrants who brought their own languages, laws, and disease, and then imported slaves and enslaved and pushed aside the indigenous peoples as they gobbled up the land.

There was a time when foreign kings and queens “awarded” parts of the Americas to people willing to emigrate, a time when a thirst for gold and furs brought adventurers to what Europeans called a New World. They brought in Chinese workers to build the railroads, and a century later Mexican Braceros to harvest crops, and later still and to this day high-tech employees from India and China. Anglo-America set doors ajar for economic purposes, but as settlement expanded and the English rooted the French and Indigenous allies from chunks of land and then formed a new country, Anglo-American immigrants looked for ways to shut the doors behind them. The pattern has been repeated long after the time when Anglo-Americans were the majority.

Four. Borders:
The whole idea of a Nation State is relatively new in a world long composed of empires and shifting local alliances. And, although we fix the borders of our own country and other nations in our minds, they have never really been that fixed. The world’s current configuration of nation states owes much to two world wars and their concluding treaties, and to the Soviet Union’s dissolution and current Russian expansion. Alaska and Hawaii were made US States in my lifetime, and the argument over Puerto Rica’s statehood continues.

In 1966, in those Peace Corps days and after my earthquake work, I took leave to go to Syria and Lebanon—then the jewel of the Middle East. At the bus station in the border town of Kilis, I said that I wanted to go to Aleppo. “Do you have a passport?” the drivers asked.

“Yes, of course. Why?”

“We’ll get you to Syria either way. Simpler and cheaper if you have a passport.”

Five. Maps
In a topsy-turvy world, it’s hard to figure what the new conformation of it will be. But one can say that the huge displacements of people by war, climate change, earthquakes and other cataclysmic events will make the world-map of 2050 quite different than the one we imagine we live in today. And God knows what the cities and countryside of what is now Southern Turkey and Northern Syria will look like then, how its millions will move elsewhere or cope there, writing another chapter in the history of the Fertile Crescent.

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Photo is from Reuters–City of Diyarbakir, my Turkish provincial capital for two years..


  1. Rich: your comments regarding borders, boundaries, and human and natural cataclysms makes me think about our presentation last week at Rotary regarding the changing borders of Hungary over the 1000+ years of its existence. In Hungry there is a movement among some more nationalistically-inclined to talk about regaining “Greater Hungary,” which includes the pre Trianon boundaries minus Austria. But even that was only true for a certain period of time.

    The whole idea of possessing land so that you can dominate and control its use thereby dominating and controlling people and profiting from it all seems to me to be such a perversion of hymn sociability. I prefer the ethic and ethos of sharing, generosity, and thinking about future generations that have been central to Indigenous societies that you have discussed previously.

  2. Thanks Craig, I did this reply once, but think it got lost. you are right on. Josephy always said the that the first big misunderstanding in the “new” world was about land and “property.” This is why i work with tribal peoples!

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