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A Community Together

Steve Shaffer

the phone starts ringing off the hook as soon as the news reaches Canada. From a cramped and cluttered office on Eglinton Avenue West, Filiz Tumer stares at a computer screen at the names of the dead and hospitalized. Her answering machine will fill to capacity today, and every day until the phone lines overseas are restored. Tumer found out early, at 10 p.m. on the same day as the quake. "Turn to CNN," her friend had said on the phone. "There's something happening in Turkey." Now the calls are piling up from those who want her to track their parents and children and don't know how bad it really is. Those who would remind her that she still hasn't heard from her sister. If not for the shock that has overcome her, the pain would be just too much to bear.

Neither Tumer nor her ill-equipped headquarters is prepared for the 7.4 Richter scale blow that rocked western Turkey on August 17. Acting as a lifeline for the Turkish community of Toronto is her first, but not most arduous task over the weeks that follow. Tumer is the executive director for the Canadian Federation of Turkish Organizations, the nerve centre for the handful of Turkish groups sprawled across Canada. And in the days that follow, the Federation takes control of the Canadian relief effort. Success will depend heavily on the 15,000 Turks who live within the Greater Toronto Area, accounting for almost a third of the entire Turkish-Canadian population.

The Toronto Turks do not usually come out in large numbers, so fundraising for the quake is going to be a challenge. The community is small, and loose-knit. And communication has never been a strength of the Turkish community. Turkey has no answer to the Chinatowns or Little Italy's of the city — and that causes potential problems when the community needs to get together. Most other established ethnic communities dealt with these problems two or three generations ago.

Besides the obstacles within the Turkish community, a number of outside factors make fundraising more difficult. When Demir Delen came to Canada in 1975, the Turkish Federation did not yet exist and a much smaller Turkish population lived within Toronto. For many years Delen acted as president for the Canadian Federation as well as for the Turkish Culture and Folklore Association. He knows the Turkish people will need help from other Canadians, but as his wife Diana explains, this is made difficult by what she calls the stereotypical image of the Turk.

"The vast majority of people I've worked with think of Turks as 'the young Turks,' the 'radical Turks,'" she says. "They think of Turks as mean and cruel." This image has persisted for decades, as have many of the feuds the Turkish people have had with other ethnic groups. History has created barriers between the Turkish community and other communities like the Armenians and Greeks. As with many other ethnic communities, adds Demir Delen, a split also exists between religious and secular Turkish people. Whether these groups can put their differences aside until the relief effort is yet to be decided.

As days turn into weeks, the death toll in Turkey soars into the tens of thousands. The number of homeless people is expected to top half a million. Everything from bulldozers to body bags to tents are desperately needed. And from this side of the ocean, feelings of sorrow for those who have died are joined by fear for those who still live. The urgency and severity of the situation in Turkey is more than the Federation can deal with alone. Countless piles of memos and flyers cover church tables along every side of the cramped Federation office. Pictures and posters of Turkish leaders are plastered to the otherwise bare walls. Between the mess and the décor, the space looks more like a 12 year-old's bedroom than the communications hub for an ethnic community. The Canadian Red Cross joins the fundraising effort, which helps raise money and pools the resources of the Turkish community in Canada.

"There have been so many emergencies this year," says Wael Ibrahim, manager of international and emergency services at Red Cross, "the public is starting to wear thin." The Turkey earthquake is overshadowed by devastating quakes in both Taiwan and Mexico. These communities are more cohesive and organized than the Turks, and look to the Red Cross primarily to funnel their money to the disaster area. Ibrahim also knows the Turkish population in Toronto is small, and that the Canadian Federation has not yet fully established itself. "I think they were a bit under-resourced and a bit overwhelmed," he says, referring to Tumer and the one or two other people he has dealt with.

Between the lack of organization and communication, no one is quite sure what the turnout will be for the first fundraiser. The event is a bake sale at Nathan Phillips Square only five days after the earthquake, with all proceeds going to Turkey.

By 10:30 am, the event that Tumer had organized on only a one day notice is underway. She can't help fearing that no one will show up, and that no one will bring any baked goods to sell. Sure enough the tables are soon lined with pastries and cakes, and a quiet crowd begins to fill the courtyard. The phone lines are still down, so everyone is buzzing with the latest news from Turkey. Despite an air of tension for those who have not yet heard from their families overseas, the first fundraiser collects a lofty $10,000—and erases any doubt that the community will put its problems aside for the time being.

At every event the Demirs attend, harmony now exists where there was none before. People who have not met in years are able to work together and put their differences aside. "I guess when there is a crisis, whether it is a natural disaster or a political crisis, they unite," says Demir Delen. Although it's true on the local level, he's also referring to the Turkish and Greek governments overseas, who are working together during the relief effort and are starting to overcome some of their differences.

Even though not all ethnic groups put their differences aside to help the Turkish people, an incredible amount of help comes from outside the community. The Canadian Auto Workers contributes $100,000, and the Canadian Jewish Congress donates money and its services.

Regardless of income, the members of the Turkish community continue to give all that they have. Stories circulate of people who offer all the fruit from their gardens when they can barely afford to put food on their tables. Most people find that sitting around and watching the news just depresses them, and that getting out and doing something to help makes it easier to deal with their emotions.

This new found strength in the community also means event organizers like Filiz Tumer do not have to work alone. Through Internet postings, e-mail, a local radio station and word of mouth, Tumer and other organizers manage to contact community leaders. Influential members of the community step forward, donating their skills and leadership to the fundraising cause. Picnics, silent auctions and concerts take form, bringing in thousands of dollars each week.

Aynur Ilkay, who came to Canada 34 years ago as a housewife, has made full use of her influence during the fundraising. Now a real estate agent and member of the Toronto Classical Turkish Music Choir, Ilkay has leadership potential. "You have to dry your eyes," she says, describing how her deep attachment to her people and culture keep her going. "You have to think about what you have to do to get out of the situation."

By day, Ilkay spends much of her time organizing garage sales in and around Toronto. The sales boast old clothes, knickknacks and donations from local businesses. One day Ilkay spotted a playpen that was left in front of a house to be picked up with the garbage. Thanks to Ilkay, the same playpen later sold for $15. Thus far, the garage sales have raised a lofty $12,500.

By night, Ilkay embraces her culture and people with her voice. More than two months after the earthquake, 250 members of the Turkish community crowd into the foyer of Metro Hall for a concert fundraiser. At the front of the room, dressed smartly in white shirts and black slacks, are Ilkay and the members of the Toronto Classical Turkish Music Choir. They watch and smile as members of the community meet and greet one another in the audience.

After a brief introduction, Ilkay steps forward and recites a poem she has written in Turkish. The subject matter is reflected in the stillness of the audience. It's the story of a baby who survives the earthquake, although his family dies. A pregnant woman who survives, although her three children die. Her husband is missing, and the woman gives birth the very next day. The theme of how to survive when part of you is dead is one which the Turkish community knows well—it is something they have had to cope with during their fundraising effort.

It is the beginning of November and Turkish Canadians have already surpassed their fundraising goal of $3 million. Most of the money initially goes towards treatment, medication and recovery, with the surplus going towards new housing. Despite their success both in fundraising and in unifying the community, the feeling persists that the community will dissipate once more when the fundraising is finished. "It's unfortunate that it takes a crisis to bring out the best in humanity," says Diana Delen. Disasters in Turkey have brought the community in Toronto together before, but have never had any long lasting effects. Religious and secular groups go back to attending different social events, and without the fundraisers, there is no reason for the entire community to get together.

Before the community even has the chance to disperse, it's November 12, and disaster has once again struck Turkey. Only 100 kilometres away from the first epicentre, a new quake kills hundreds and destroys the homes of thousands. Any surplus money from the first round of fundraisers has a new purpose. It looks like the community will continue to work together — for the time being.

The phone is once again ringing off the hook at the Federation office, but this time Tumer has a reason to smile. The office is packed to the ceiling with boxes of clothes and blankets, and many of the phone calls are further donations. There's little sign of what Wael Ibrahim refers to as "donor fatigue syndrome," even though the media doesn't give the new quake much attention. "We came together in a way that made me cry," says Tumer, as the fundraising comes to an end. "I kind of miss that now."

Steve Shaffer is a Ryerson journalism student.

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