Wiam Younes has connected with dozens of Syrian families across Western Pennsylvania in her role as executive director of a nonprofit that helps refugees acclimate to life in the U.S.
With war disrupting life for so many in Syria, many of the families who have come to the Pittsburgh area also have relatives who found refuge in Turkiye in their search for peace and safety, said the executive director of Ansar of Pittsburgh, based in Carnegie.
But two weeks ago, what was once a refuge became the site of unspeakable devastation.
With tens of thousands of lives lost in a series of earthquakes earlier this month, 20 local organizations — spearheaded by Pittsburgh’s Turkish Cultural Center — led an interfaith vigil in Bethel Park Sunday evening to grieve and seek healing.
The gathering brought together representatives of many different religious organizations with the goal, organizers said, of emphasizing unity. About 100 people attended the event to focus attention and prayer on the disaster, its victims and its survivors.
At 4:17 a.m. on Feb. 6, a powerful earthquake struck southeastern Turkiye and northern Syria, registering a magnitude of 7.8 on the Richter scale. Nine hours later, an aftershock about 60 miles from the epicenter (the city of Kahramanmaras) reached a magnitude of 7.5.
Such an aftershock is extremely rare: Only about 1 in 20 earthquakes create aftershocks at the same or larger scale as the initial event, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.
In the ensuing weeks, more than 43,000 people have died and 80,000 have been injured, making the earthquake the deadliest natural disaster in the country’s modern history. In addition to its human toll, the seismic event has caused an estimated $84.1 billion in damages.
“Across the affected areas in both countries, entire apartment buildings and schools have been leveled. For Syrians, the damage took place in areas that were already devastated by years of war,” Gurkan Colak, a member of the dialogue committee at the Turkish Cultural Center, said at the Sunday evening event.
The vigil, which took place at Christ Church in Bethel Park, included insights from Ms. Younes and Mr. Colak on the earthquake’s impact on the region. For example, Ms. Younes spoke about a family of eight in Syria — where little aid has arrived so far — who are building a shelter brick by brick in order to remain in their homeland.
Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald speaks at the Interfaith Vigil to mourn lives lost in The earthquake in Turkiye and Syria on Sunday Feb. 19, 2023, Christ Church, Bethel Park.(John Colombo/For the Post-Gazette)
Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald also delivered remarks, in which he praised U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s commitment of $100 million in additional humanitarian aid earlier in the day.
“One thing about the community of southwestern Pennsylvania that we've always been known for is people reaching out to help our members,” Mr. Fitzgerald said. “Every time there’s someone in need — whether it's our friends in Ukraine, our friends at the Tree of Life, or so many other things over the years — people reach out.”
The United Nations website notes the Republic of Turkiye changed its official name from the Republic of Turkey in 2022.
During the Sunday’s event in Bethel Park, religious leaders within the community offered prayers, interspersed with musical selections that included a piece performed on the ney, a traditional Turkish flute.
While the prayers centered around three themes — lament, healing and “the way ahead” — their origins stemmed from a wide variety of traditions, including Islam, Buddhism, and Judaism, along with multiple Christian denominations.
This interfaith approach was meant to bring unity and build upon a foundation of mutual trust and care, according to the Rev. Liddy Barlow, executive minister of Christian Associates of Southwestern Pennsylvania, who helped organize the event.
“In these prayers, it's a typical practice to not to pray to the lowest common denominator. We want people to speak authentically from their own traditions,” Rev. Barlow said.
Fatima Gurakar from the Turkish Cultural Center opens the service at the Interfaith Vigil to mourn lives lost in The earthquake in Turkiye and Syria on Sunday Feb. 19, 2023, Christ Church, Bethel Park.(John Colombo/For the Post-Gazette)
Donations from the event were directed to Embrace Relief, a humanitarian organization with connections to the local Turkish Cultural Center, as well as the Syrian American Medical Society. Embrace Relief has already raised more than $1 million to provide urgent relief to the affected areas.
For Rev. Barlow, the event helped localize a catastrophe that occurred thousands of miles from Pittsburgh — underscoring the message in the event’s closing song: “We Are All the Leaves of One Tree.”
“I think it's one thing to read a headline, and it's another to know people who are from these places. And here in Pittsburgh, we have neighbors from around the world,” she said.
“Our friends from Turkiye have supported communities in their own times of struggle … and so it feels right to stand with our Turkish and Syrian friends at a moment like this.”
First Published February 19, 2023, 9:12pm