On Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2023, crowds of University students, faculty, and staff buzzed throughout the Exley Science Center, contributing both their time and extra funds to support the people of Turkey and Syria after a series of powerful earthquakes devastated the region last month. The smells of baklava, kebabs, and other delicious dishes helped raise $4,720—over three times the initial fundraising goal of $1,500. The event also highlighted the importance of community spirit in the midst of difficult times.
On Feb. 6, 2023, a magnitude 7.8 earthquake struck southern and central Turkey and northern and western Syria, followed by a series of devastating aftershocks throughout February. As of Mar. 1, more than 51,000 deaths have been confirmed.
The climbing death toll and staggering levels of destruction have deeply affected many students. Since helping from halfway across the world proved difficult, many wanted to take part in an on-campus event to provide relief both to earthquake victims and affected members of the community.
“The Turkish students were feeling understandably helpless and alone,” Assistant Director of Religious and Spiritual Life and Muslim Chaplain Shaykh Jamir D. Meah said. “I asked them how we could help them feel less helpless and alone, and they all said they would like to do a community event.”
Students came up with a variety of ideas to take action before deciding on a campus-wide fundraiser. Following the earthquakes, Turkish student Beyza Koc ’24 expressed her wish to create a gathering or vigil to honor the victims of the earthquake; similarly, emails circulated within the Turkish community to share support and offer event suggestions.
“The idea originated from a couple of sources,” Meah said. “I had reached out to the Muslim Student Association (MSA) community via the WesMus newsletter to offer support and prayers, and practical ways to help. This was then shared across campus. The MSA and I had discussed the possibility of a fundraiser…. I started to reach out to a few restaurants to see if they would consider donating food for the fundraiser sales, were we to hold one, to which they generously agreed.”
After personally reaching out to Turkish students and others affected by the tragedy, Meah created a WhatsApp group with Turkish students and members of the MSA board.
“We knew we had to act quickly to keep momentum, so everything was discussed and arranged within a week,” Meah said. “In the meeting and subsequent WhatsApp discussions, we identified the different aspects of the fundraiser, to which I designated everyone with tasks.”
A huge amount of coordination was required to make the event a success. MSA members and other students worked tirelessly to support the cause, deciding on the charity and payment process, booking a space, liaising with other departments, contacting restaurants, determining target and pricing, doing outreach, creating posters, and organizing a volunteer list.
Though the event was mainly intended to raise awareness and money for earthquake relief, students found that the subsequent planning and effort put into the fundraiser enabled them to develop leadership skills and learn how to be active supporters of causes that were important to them. Additionally, the initial loneliness and helplessness that students once felt slowly melted away.
“Standing there and seeing people donating made us really happy,” Farah Hasanain ’26 said. “We knew that each single dollar would go to help a family in Syria or Turkey who thought their lives may have never been fixed again.”
Meah, the MSA, and Turkish students also received support from the Office of Graduate Student Services, the Office of International Student Affairs, Auxiliary Services, Bon Appétit, and Meah’s wife, Hoda. Roti Boti Restaurant in Meriden and Sultan’s Turkish Restaurant in Waterbury donated food. The fundraiser took place from 12:15 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. and was well attended by community members. All of the proceeds went directly to Doctors Without Borders, an organization that works to bring medical relief to victims of natural disasters.
In addition to the $4,720 raised, an undisclosed amount was donated later that evening in honor of all the work done by the Wesleyan community, which brought the total amount of money raised closer to or beyond $5,000.
Within the four-hour span of the event, 100 kebabs, three trays of baklava, three chafing dishes of Thai noodles and seitan, and 100 cookies were all sold out. While the number of people who attended is difficult to calculate, there was a constant stream of people during the entire duration of the fundraiser.
After the successful day, the students and Meah came together to express gratitude and share how empowered they felt after the event. According to Meah, organizing and executing the fundraiser meant a lot to students.
“Despite the ongoing suffering and the huge amount of resources needed in the affected areas, it was meaningful for all of us to be able to actively raise funds and contribute to providing some relief to victims,” Meah said. “For these reasons, I feel the event served its purposes and can be considered a success.”
Carolyn Neugarten can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.