Antakya Needs Hope

Others can move beyond the earthquake, but Project Antioch cannot

“This is all a miracle,” Luis Gomez exclaims as he stands dwarfed in the entrance of a cavernous warehouse in Antakya, Turkey.  He greets a handful of volunteers in gray  Adventist Vakfi vests helping to handle pallets of food supplies, stacks of diapers, a truck bed of water jugs.

Over nine months have passed since the devastating quake of February 6, 2023 claimed 51,000 lives and demolished large portions of the Hatay province, including much of the historic city of Antakya, once known as the biblical city of Antioch.  To most of the 16 million whose lives were shattered that day, their worst reminder isn’t the 30,000 aftershocks in the months following the quake.  It’s the immeasurable, long-term loss.  Today most of Antakya’s population live in tents.  Hundreds of thousands still have no assurance of food and clean water.

The warehouse, pallets, and volunteers are some of the critical elements of Antioch Project, or Adventist Vakfi (Adventist Foundation), a government-recognized agency currently distributing food boxes, hygiene kits, and water to some of the most needy of the homeless.  Luis, who speaks Turkish and knows Antakya’s layout and neighborhoods well, is well-equipped to coordinate the multi-stage project.

“I was living in Adana at the time of the quake,” he recalls.  “When I arrived in Antakya the first time, I thought I’d stepped into a horror movie.  The rubble, the rescue teams, the bodies, the wailing.”  He takes a deep breath.  “That part is over.  Now, it’s just poverty.  Extreme poverty.  And hopelessness.”  If there ever was a place that needs miracles, it is Antakya.

Murat Garib, who has been assisting with the Project since it was launched a month after the quake, has experienced the challenge first hand.  He remembers.  “We hardly knew where to turn, where to begin, it was so overwhelming.”  The interest from around the world brought early emergency resources from ADRA International and other ADRA country offices, local churches, and private donors.  But by mid-March Project Antioch was in place and the first group of volunteers were scheduled to arrive.  No one knew where they would sleep, bathe, cook, or eat.

Those were the challenges weighing on Luis’ mind as he drove through the deserted countryside outside of Antakya nearly four weeks after the quake.  Engulfed by the dusty landscape, he almost didn’t notice a lone figure on the side of the highway waving him to stop.   Luis could only think of excuses.  Where would anyone be going when there is nowhere to go?  Could he really take time to stop and help?  Hesitantly Luis drifted to a stop; the man caught up to the car, thanking Luis profusely as he climbed in.  

To make small talk Luis explained the errand he was on, the aid that was coming, the volunteers on their way, his search for a place for them to live in such unlivable surroundings.  The man seemed interested.  

“You can use my place,” he finally offered matter-of-factly.  He described property he owned on a nearby hill–an old mosque, a shrine of sorts.  It was still intact after the quake, with rooms enough for sleeping, washing, cooking, working, storing.  It was sufficient for the Project’s needs.

But God went beyond the sufficient.  The old mosque didn’t provide the space to hold the amount of goods the Project would be handling.  But friends who had been helping Luis and Murat with translation met a businessman who owned a warehouse, a very large one.  It was ten minutes from the old mosque and 30 minutes from some of Antakya’s neediest neighborhoods.  

The first eight Korean young people had a place to stay, and space to work. In the first six months of the Project, they had the support of 65 volunteers from 14 countries.   7755 families received aid with 3540 food boxes, 3828 hygiene packages, 6573 five-liter bottles of water.  In addition, as items were available, the Project distributed 3,000 t-shirts, electric pans, fans, diapers, shoes, underwear, and more. 

Sara. a member of a group from Middle East University who arrived in mid-June, planned to volunteer for three weeks.  “Everyone around us spoke Turkish, but it slowly dawned on me that if I stayed the whole summer and translated, we would be able to serve the Arabic-speaking refugees too.  I saw God’s purpose for my life clearer than ever.  I will never be the same.”

“We have chosen to search out the most isolated, the most vulnerable,” explains Murat, who has been with the Project since the beginning. “We actually drive around looking for small groups of families in their makeshift dwellings or tents who are trying to survive on their own.”  

Some are uncertain of the help, but some are deeply appreciative.  “The most touching experience is when families urge us to stay to share tea or a small meal that they have made from the provisions we’ve brought them,” Luis shares.   “For a few special moments, we play with the children, we drink tea together, we visit like we’ve known each other for years.  I thank God that in the very place where Jesus’ followers were first called Christians, we can live out the love of Christ  to a people who have all but lost hope.  That we can be like Jesus to them.”