Turkish Students at Pomona Mobilize to Send Earthquake Relief

Turkish Student Association 2023

Beliz Aluc ’23, Serenat Arpat ’25 and Ulas Ayyilmaz ’24 first heard about the earthquake back home in the late afternoon on February 6, but it was hard to comprehend the magnitude of it. As evening came, though, the devastating news reports started filing in.

The 7.8 magnitude earthquake that hit Turkey and Syria has killed over 51,000 people so far and left millions homeless, with the World Health Organization calling it Europe’s “worst natural disaster in a century.”

Arpat and Ayyilmaz, both from Izmir, had experienced a 7.1-magnitude earthquake firsthand in 2020, so they knew that time was of the essence to send help.

The three of them and other students in the Claremont Colleges’ Turkish Student Association immediately sprang into action that first evening via their group chat. By the end of the night, they had created a fundraiser on GoFundMe to aid victims. The non-profit they chose to donate to provides essential supplies including tents, heaters, clothing, food and clean water.

“We were raised with the value that every single person in our country is like one of us,” says Arpat. “When something happens in any part of the country, that person is valuable to me, even though I don't know that person.”

As they went to bed that night, they had raised $200. Arpat says, “I remember telling (Ayyilmaz), ‘Oh my god, do you think we could raise $400?’” By the next day, they had raised $3,000. Currently, over $16,000 of their $20,000 goal has been met. To raise that amount took a considerable amount of legwork but was also the upshot of being at a small college, they say.

“The community has been so responsive,” says Ayyilmaz.

Aluc, an international relations major from Istanbul, says that Professor Fernando Lozano along with College administrators helped spread the word. By the third day after the earthquake, every Pomona faculty member and student had received an email about their fundraiser.

Additionally, “social media was a big thing,” says Aluc. They leveraged the Turkish Student Association’s Instagram account, which previously had been just a “fun” account, to reach out to various people.

In person, members of the Turkish Student Association set up tables at dining halls all week to bring attention to the situation in Turkey. Every student from Turkey at the Claremont Colleges is part of the club, they say, which includes nine students at Pomona and six at Claremont McKenna, Harvey Mudd and Pitzer Colleges combined. Professors gave them a platform to speak in class as well. “I stood up, and while I was doing the announcement, I almost cried in the class. My hands were shaking,” says Ayyilmaz, a computer science major. “But everyone was so supportive.”

The constant awareness raising, in addition to the devastation of the earthquake, has taken a toll, they share.

“I was talking about people dying as if they were just numbers,” says Arpat, an international relations major. “I was talking about statistics, but my heart was breaking inside. It was hard to tell every single person that I talked to and make sure that they understand the huge effect that this earthquake has had on us and our community.”

Aluc adds, “You always have this question in the back of your mind: ‘If this had happened anywhere else, would there be a response that’s different than this?’ You are very much aware of others’ perception of you and of your country. It was for some people just another thing in the Middle East, another disaster there.”

Undeterred, they are driven by the deep care they have for their fellow Turkish people.

“Our hearts always beat with them,” says Arpat. All three of them came to the U.S. for college for opportunities that couldn’t be found in Turkey. Pomona made it possible with full financial aid. But being far away has not lessened their connection to home.

“Turkey is a much smaller country than the U.S.,” says Aluc. “If something happens in the country, you will feel it.”