Lessons in solidarity from the Turkey and Syria earthquake disasters

February 13, 2023
Rescuers try to find survivors in Turkey. Photo: ANF News

At personal, national and international levels, crises provide learning opportunities: how to adapt to loss by seeking change and how to think differently about family, community and nation by, among other things, pondering the meaning of security and sovereignty.

Immediate responses to the massive earthquake disasters in Turkey and Syria concern rescue, shelter, food supply, healthcare and the safety of Turkish and Syrian citizens.

But the crises for those citizens could encourage all the world’s peoples to think again about ways to live in a world where hundreds of thousands are threatened by earthquakes, and millions by violence from other forces of nature.

The presence in Turkey and Syria of rescue teams from many countries speaks of interdependence not nationalism, of selflessness not selfishness — traits of a common humanity, as instructive as courageous responses to disaster.

In the months that follow these earthquakes, survivors will be affected by an economy that will not be preoccupied with competition and gain, with glorification of financial success, let alone with out-of-reach housing prices and growing inequality.

Survival could emphasise ways of thinking and living through sharing, support and fellowship via more concern with collective well-being than individual advantage.

Lessons from Turkey and Syria have the potential to encourage politicians, military, religious and business leaders, educators, judges and journalists to realise that life on planet Earth has neither time nor place for human-induced cruelty and violence.

At the mercy of earthquakes and climate change, there can be no justification for cruelty as a key plank of asylum seeker policy, or for violence as the centrepoint of militarist foreign policies.

The earthquake tragedy must surely prompt the Australian government to reconsider its cruelty towards vulnerable people, such as asylum seekers. Why mouth respect for human rights, yet maintain cruelty towards the thousands still on temporary protection visas in cities and towns across Australia?

As hundreds of thousands of survivors in Turkey and Syria search for tents amid sub zero temperatures, Australians are giving generously to housing relief.

Earthquake survivors’ urgent needs for shelter will require an imaginative and global response in which the interests of the many are placed ahead of the few.

In the same vein, we need an imaginative response to the housing crises gripping Australia: a roof over our heads is a right.

During crises, cultural and financial sacred cows have to be abandoned, perhaps forever.

The devastation from the earthquake also raises questions about the government’s commitment to violence as a way to assert “national identity”.

Why, if faced with extinction from natural disasters, would any government decide it had time for war, let alone want to spend $200 billion on eight United States-designed nuclear attack submarines for use in 2050 to support the US in a war on China?

Ways of living together in peace and harmony, safety and security must be reinterpreted and recrafted. To know how, ask grieving survivors and hard-pressed rescuers in Turkish and Syrian cities.

For centuries, “security” has depended on violence from nation state policies — a mode of thinking and practice which has guaranteed misery and destruction.

It is long overdue for human rights, humanity and non-violence to take centre stage — qualities so evident in responses to the Turkey-Syrian disasters.

The lessons are obvious. The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warnings about the consequences of catastrophic climate change are urgent requests to change ways of thinking and living.

Reject cruelty and violence. Imitate the generosity, courage, reciprocity, sharing and re-building being displayed in southern Turkey and Northern Syria.

We must learn from the interdependence and solidarity shown in those earthquake ruins.

[Stuart Rees is Professor Emeritus, University of Sydney and the author of Cruelty or Humanity: Challenges, Opportunities and Responsibilities. A version of this piece was published at Pearls and Irritations.]

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