Meet a ‘womanitarian’: Zehra - “I am a humanitarian worker. I need to be there.”

Zehra - CARE staff, Hatay, Turkey

15 September 2023


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Like many of her colleagues, Zehra was directly affected by the devastating earthquakes in Turkey and Syria earlier this year. But this did not stop her from going back to work only a few days following the catastrophe.

Zehra is a Food Security and Livelihoods Officer, and is currently working with CARE’s emergency response team in Hatay to support communities affected by the earthquakes. On February 6th 2023, she was in the city of Aday, away from her family back in Hatay. She recalls the moment the earthquakes struck:

Everything happened so fast, but it felt like an eternity”

“I was asleep on the couch in my apartment, on the tenth floor of the building. Adana is a very hot city, but that night was particularly cold. I remember I suddenly fell on the floor. It felt like I fell from somewhere very high. My arm was in pain and I could not understand what was happening.

I believe it took me around 3 seconds to realize it was an earthquake. Everything happened so fast, but at the same time these moments felt like an eternity. I immediately called my mother. I did not wait for the earthquake to stop."

Zehra ’s family was safe, but their house was completely destroyed. Around 30 people died in their village that night. Among them was a schoolmate and good friend of Zehra, with her four children. She managed to find a car and travel to Hatay to see her family, bringing food, clothes, power banks, medicine, baby formulas and more essentials for anyone in need.

Devastation in Hatar, Turkey

Image: scenes of devastation in Hatay province ©CARE Türkiye

“For around ten days, I was sleeping in the small garden of a neighboring house with another 30 people from my village. I think I slept for five hours in total during these ten days,” she recalls.

If I don’t go, it will be like I betrayed my city.”

Zehra ’s family moved to Izmir on the sixth day after the earthquakes and she joined them a few days later to take some rest and figure out her next steps. CARE made a call for staff who would be willing to be part of the emergency response, and Zehra was determined to go. However, the decision to leave her family in Izmir and return to Hatay was among the most challenging moments of her 10-year experience as a humanitarian worker.

“My mother was scared, she was not getting enough sleep, she was having nightmares and could not stay alone. She asked me to stay in Izmir with her for a while longer. We had a very difficult conversation. I told her ‘If I don’t go, it will be like I betrayed my city’. She understood and was eventually very supportive of me leaving.”

“Everything will be ok in the end.”

Zehra - Turkey food distribution

Image: Zehra with a CARE colleague at a distribution of aid supplies ©Tarek Satea/CARE

Today, more than six months after the earthquakes, Zehra is still in Hatay working in the field as a Food Security and Livelihoods Officer. She remains committed to stay for as long as needed.

“The needs are still immense and essential. There are hundreds of thousands of people who do not have access to clean water, food, hygiene items and adequate shelter. Right now, the weather is extremely hot, and people do not always have the means to protect themselves from the high temperatures. Having access to hygiene and sanitation facilities is also an issue for many, and especially for women and children. Everything will be ok in the end, but we still have a long way to go.”

RS97177_Turkey Syria Food distribution

Image: Unloading food supplies in Turkey ©CARE Türkiye

CARE is providing much-needed assistance to those affected by the earthquake in various locations in Turkey, for example providing food and shelter, and distributing drinking water and hygiene kits. Zehra and her team are responsible for food distribution, with funding from the Disasters Emergency Committee. They recently started distribution of cash for food, in addition to food baskets.

Zehra explains why cash for food and vouchers are so important:

“Cash for food and cash vouchers for food are essential when responding to a crisis like the one we face in Türkiye, as among those severely affected there are specific groups of more vulnerable people who need to be able to meet their particular food needs. A food basket includes food that can be consumed by anyone, like rice, lentils, olive oil, fruits. But with a food voucher or cash for food, we give people with specific needs, such as those with health conditions or pregnant women, a choice to buy what they need. It is also a more dignified way of addressing people’s needs, as you give them back the possibility to choose for themselves what they prefer to eat.”

Find out more about CARE's response in Turkey and Syria

“We did not leave, we are here!”

Despite working non-stop ever since the earthquakes and having witnessed so much destruction in her beloved city, Zehra would not be in any other place right now. She is now more resilient and isdetermined to remain a committed humanitarian worker.

“When I started working again with CARE after the earthquakes, I started sleeping and eating again and I was feeling useful again and started recovering. Yes, it is difficult but at the same time, as a humanitarian worker I could not be in any other place. I have learned a lot during these intense months and among the most important lessons is that in two minutes one can lose everything. I do not want to waste any time anymore. I want to live in the moment, focus on the positive moments and be my best self for my family and for society.

I am hopeful that with persistence and patience, we will rebuild everything again. The priority now is people and responding to their immediate needs, but everything will be ok in the end. We have this saying after the earthquakes, that is often written on walls that are still standing around the city and this is exactly what I want to say to everyone who can hear me: ‘We did not leave, we are here!’”

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