Turkish pastor: “We are exhausted, but there is so much work to do”
Leendert de Bruin, RD
Time to catch their breath is scarce for Hamdullah and Elmas Akin. The Turkish pastor couple has been committed to providing emergency aid to the local population since the earthquake in February.
“We get up early in the morning and work until late at night,” says Elmas. “Most weeks, this goes on for six days. Sunday is also a very busy day.” The couple seems almost tireless, but appearances are deceptive. “We are exhausted,” sighs Elmas. “There is still so much work to do.”
The couple is affiliated with the Mesihçiler Kilisesi Protestant church in Antakya. This city -the Biblical Antioch- in southeastern Turkey was hit by a devastating earthquake on February 6th. The natural disaster surprises thousands of residents in their sleep; many become trapped under the rubble. The death toll across Turkey has risen to well over 50,000 people.
Hamdullah and Elmas survive the earthquake, as do the around 40 Antakya Mesihçiler Kilisesi church members. However, the couple’s home and the church building in the centre do not come through the earthquake unscathed. “We saw the next day that our church had collapsed. It was impossible to get close; the whole street was full of debris and rubbish. When we saw that, we burst into tears.”
Yet they are not resigning themselves. With the help of dozens of volunteers, the two started providing emergency relief for the affected residents. From a container camp a few kilometres south of the destroyed centre of Antakya, they are distributing food and groceries to thousands of people. Great efforts are also being made to build tents and units for the homeless.
Six months later, the initial emergency has been relieved, but help is still incredibly needed, says Elma. “In the beginning, the earthquake victims had nothing. Anything we could give them they needed,” she explains. “Now they all have mattresses, pillows, bedding, clothes and shoes.”
Yet the church still distributes hundreds of emergency relief parcels every week. Elma: “Families have no work, no income and therefore no food! Things like food, hygiene and washing supplies and clothes are still needed.”
The construction of makeshift shelters also continues. “We had thought that everyone would be living in barracks or tents after six months. The government only helps to a limited extent, so most people still struggle. Many residents ask us for tents or containers.”
In Antakya, reconstruction has barely started, Elmas observes. Demolition and debris clearance work is still in full swing. Fine dust swirls through the city centre. “Much debris has been cleared, but there are also still many buildings that have been rejected and need to be destroyed, after which the rubble will be cleared. Only then can rebuilding begin.”
At the time of the earthquake, it was still freezing. Meanwhile, the mercury had risen above 40 degrees Celsius in Turkey. The heat is currently the biggest challenge. “There is a huge need for water at the moment. There are shortages throughout Antakya, although we still have enough to drink.”
The heat is also hampering activities. The women’s meetings organised by Elma are currently paused. “We are all suffering a lot from the heat. Last week it was 40 degrees in the shade, and it was very tiring for everyone. We hold Sunday services under sundries with fans.”
Despite the situation, Elmas does not want to complain. “We are living under very difficult circumstances, but we know that God is with us every step of the way. These days are coming to an end. We constantly feel the love of God, whether through the help of other Christians or because He speaks to us.”
Besides all the activities, the couple is also busy building a new church. This had been underway before the earthquake but came to a halt. Recently, Elmas received the gratifying news that the authorities were permitted to resume construction. “God be praised,” he says. With the help of foreign volunteers, all efforts are now being made to complete the building -currently still a concrete structure-.
The fact that the church is still standing is a sign to the couple that they should not leave. “By God’s grace, it has not been damaged. We prayed a lot for this new building. And the Lord gave it to us. During the earthquake, He protected the church from collapsing. That is a sign from the Lord to stay.”
After the earthquake, many congregation members left. Before the disaster, the congregation consisted of about 40 people. By May, only five of those remained, including the pastor couple. A handful of members have returned in the meantime. The rest cannot find accommodation and therefore stay away.
Meanwhile, the church did welcome new people. Indeed, the help being provided is also taking on spiritual significance. “People are interested. They want to learn what God’s Word is about. Hamdullah meets many people during the week and talks to them about the Bible. He spends a lot of time on this.”
This article was translated by CNE.news and previously published in the Dutch Christian daily Reformatorisch Dagblad.
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