The Westchester Turkish American Moms are no longer just a social and cultural group as they had been since their founding six years ago. Following the latest devastating earthquake in Turkey on Feb. 6, the moms — and dads and kids and grandparents — began organizing to help in the global relief effort through a supplies and clothing drive and a fundraising campaign.
“I wanted my kids to learn Turkish and get exposed to that,” said Hulya Sener O’Doherty, one of the group’s founders. “That was our goal. I felt so lucky that the group exists and now I see the value. It’s important to have a place to go, to communicate and to get together quickly. We never had the need, but now we see how important this is.”
A 7.8 magnitude earthquake hit southern and central Turkey and western Syria at 4:17 a.m., with another 7.7 magnitude quake in north-northeast Turkey hitting nine hours later on the 6th. Though there were some rescues that happened after people had been trapped under rubble for over 200 hours, the focus is now mainly on relief efforts to help the millions impacted as a winter storm brought low temperatures, putting the survivors at increased risk.
Over 24 million people have been affected in the areas of the two earthquakes, with a death toll over 43,000 — 35,000 in Turkey, 5,800 in Syria — and over 115,000 injured between the two quakes.
Sener O’Doherty was born in Turkey and came to the United States in 1990 to learn English for a year. She stayed for graduate school, started working and later got married and never left. In 1999, Sener O’Doherty was living in New Jersey and her parents were in Istanbul when an earthquake hit the region. “It was devastating, so as soon as we heard I was frantically calling my mom,” said the now Mamaroneck Strip resident whose four kids attend Scarsdale schools. “They lived in a building and I couldn’t reach them the whole day. We were so lucky. Their building was still standing. They were under the furniture, but they were alive.”
Last week’s earthquake was among the deadliest and highest magnitude earthquakes to hit the region dating back centuries.
“Seeing those pictures for days with people under the rubble and seeing the children I can’t imagine this is happening,” Sener O’Doherty said. “I’m constantly talking to my sister. She’s a medical doctor in Turkey. She’s thankfully not impacted as she’s more in the western part of South Turkey. Everybody is helpless. I saw this little old lady with a little tool trying to break the big concrete. It’s heartbreaking and this earthquake is 10 times bigger than what it was back then [in 1999]. I went to Turkey after that earthquake two years later and there were still tent cities in the towns. Right now there are so many people without homes and it’s devastating.”
Last week, families from Westchester Turkish American Moms got word out about what types of supplies were needed — clothing, winter coats, baby products, feminine products and more — and began sorting and boxing them up Sunday morning, Feb. 12, at European Beauty Nail and Spa on Boston Post Road in Mamaroneck, a business owned by a member of the group, to pack in trucks to send to a facility in Carlstadt, New Jersey, for shipment overseas.
“We called the community together and it’s so nice to see everybody united around helping people,” group founder and Larchmont resident Funda Suer said. “It’s really devastating. It’s really big, 10 cities destroyed. The numbers we see out there, the death toll to start are just so scary. We are getting information that babies don’t have baby food. They don’t have their parents. And there’s no shelter for many of them. Whatever we can do we really appreciate everybody and we’re grateful for our community helping us.”
The Mamaroneck area was hit hard by flooding in early September 2021, and the community came together. While it wasn’t a global event, attracting the same type of humanitarian effort, local residents understand the importance of aid during a crisis.
Scarsdale High School junior Lila O’Doherty and freshman Maya O’Doherty were helping sort and pack supplies.
“I think it’s really cool to see this because I didn’t know there were this many people in the Turkish community in Westchester and it’s eye-opening,” Maya said. “I didn’t know so many people had relatives in Turkey who needed help.”
Said Lila, “It’s really reassuring for me that there are a lot of people that want to help, especially in America and in Scarsdale helping people across the world who really need it. It’s a good feeling for me, especially for my grandparents. I was very worried about them.”
There were also students from French American School of New York, Rye Neck and Mamaroneck helping out. Arda Suer is a sophomore at Mamaroneck and worked alongside the other students. “It is a bit of a rivalry,” Arda joked of Scarsdale and Mamaroneck, “but you’ve got to be peaceful during stuff like this.”
Though Arda wishes he could go help in person, he knows he is doing “the next best thing.”
“It feels good to come together as a community,” he said. “It feels good to know you’re trying to help out. Feeling bad for them isn’t enough — you really have to contribute.”
Seeing all of the elementary school kids helping out was uplifting for Arda. “They’re getting on the right track seeing stuff like this and it will have an influence on them so when they’re older they’re more likely to help,” he said. “They’re helping out a lot today.”
Scarsdale Realtor and Mamaroneck resident Tulay Erdem grew up in the area of Turkey that was devastated last week, moving to Switzerland when she was 10 years old. She’s lost family and other relatives are without housing and she was proud to do her part along with her two children.
“They get everything they want and we work very hard to provide for our children and they don’t have the sense of reality of the other side of the world, so bringing them in here, having them really help really grounds them and teaches them to not take what they have for granted,” she said. “We’re really fortunate.”
Sener O’Doherty said she is “really hopeful” at the outpouring of support and the community-building effort. “It just happened five days ago and there are still people being pulled out alive,” she said. “It’s really cold there now so they need our support. We need to switch to supporting them financially now. They need the containers to live, the tents to live, the heaters, all this stuff. This is the tail end of the collection, so it will be more about fundraising.”
She couldn’t imagine losing everything overnight and not having access to drinking water or food. Shifting priorities during the crisis was a natural response.
“There’s so many unfortunately tragic stuff happening in the world, but sometimes you’re caught up in the daily stuff,” Sener O’Doherty said. “You feel like the soccer schedule or whatever takes over. This hits so close to home and I want people to see they can make an impact. The kids, especially in the high school, they do a lot of community service and other stuff. I was watching the news with my son and he got a panic attack from it. It’s very traumatic, but we have to do whatever we can.”
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