How To Volunteer With Earthquake Victims In Hatay, Turkey

If you are thinking about volunteering to help the beautiful people of Southeastern Turkey, thank you. Visiting Turkey as earthquake volunteers was one of the most rewarding things we’ve ever done.

We first visited Turkey in 2021. The country stole our hearts, and we ended up staying for 90 days. But the main reason we were drawn back to this particular region after the devastating earthquakes of 2023 was the warmth of the people. We felt compelled to help the people after they lost their homes, neighborhoods and loved ones.

So maybe you’re like us and have a special bond with Turkey, or perhaps generosity motivates you to fight for the people whose lives were changed forever and who have largely been forgotten in a world that chases the next big news headline.

Either way, one thing that’s certain is that people in Hatay, Turkey are still living through a desperate situation. And they need all the help they can get.

This post shares all the details of our time supporting a local non-profit organization in Antakya, Turkey, so you can easily replicate our trip. We’ll tell you where to go, how to get around, who to contact, and everything else you need to know!

Estimated reading time: 12 minutes

Why Southern Turkey Needs Volunteers

On February 6th 2023, two massive earthquakes shook Southeastern Turkey and Northern Syria to its core. The first quake registered at a 7.8 on the Richter scale, and struck around 4 a.m. when people were asleep in their beds and helpless to do anything.

A second earthquake (a 7.6 on the Richter scale) brought even more terror about 9 hours later. Locals told us it felt like an eternity before the earth stopped shaking from the earthquakes and 570 aftershocks. Finally, three weeks later, a third earthquake hit, resulting in more destruction and loss of life.

Ultimately, over 50,000 people lost their lives, and millions were displaced. Entire cities crumbled and became unrecognizable. In war-torn Syria, people already facing dire situations crossed the border into Turkey to get access to humanitarian aid. The people here need help rebuilding their city and lives as best they can.

How Antakya, Turkey Is Coping

Antakya, a beloved city in the Hatay region of southeastern Turkey, was home to over 400,000 people. Now, the future is extremely unclear. The scenes of what Antakya is like today will be burned into our memories forever.

Rubble and dust are what’s left of entire neighborhoods that were either destroyed by the earthquakes or demolished after. Some crumbled buildings are left standing, but most are unlivable and will be eventually demolished. In the end, it is estimated that 80% of the structures will disappear from Antakya’s landscape.

Families and individuals eventually settled in makeshift housing. These tent and container communities continue to house thousands of homeless and displaced families. These are some of the many challenges people continue to face months after this unprecedented natural disaster: 

  • People are living in tent or container communities. Cramped living spaces with little security can be unsafe for women and children.
  • Women and girls lack access to safe bathrooms and feminine hygiene products.
  • Adolescents have no places to study, and their dreams to go to university have been put on hold.
  • Children who lack resources have limited access to schools and basic school supplies.
  • Children struggle to cope with trauma and lack the psychological support needed to heal.
  • Playgrounds and youth community centers are needed to provide kids with safe places to play.
  • Local hospitals can’t treat most patients due to a lack of staff, equipment and medical supplies.
  • Many people have left Hatay, and businesses have gone with them. Families need support starting small businesses. 

Thankfully, a lot of the people in Antakya are committed to rebuilding. And there are still a few organizations on the ground trying to help the people, who against all odds, are trying to move forward. One reason for hope is the people of Antakya and their pride for their culture, heritage, and city.

Watch our experience as a Turkey earthquake volunteer in Antakya:

Where to volunteer for Turkey earthquake victims?

Due to families being displaced, there are opportunities to financially support earthquake victims currently residing all over Turkey. That said, active volunteering is more prevalent in the region of Hatay. Specifically, Antakya has seen the most destruction and has the greatest need for investment and on-the-ground support.

Who To Partner With?

We spent the week in Antakya to do a fundraiser. We were lucky to partner with an amazing local organization ​(Mavi Kalem)​, which aids in the recovery efforts in and around Antakya.

Mavi Kalem Turkey Earthquake Volunteer Organization
Hanging out with part of the Mavi Kalem team.

Mavi Kalem focuses on empowering women and children living through difficult situations. They have been working on earthquake relief for over 20 years! Their local knowledge helps them to support remote communities overlooked by larger aid organizations.

Donations and on-the-ground efforts are designated for the following need areas:

  • Providing female entrepreneurs with necessary items to restart their business. For example, scissors and hair dryers for salon owners.
  • Installing air conditioning (heating & cooling) in container homes. Families will likely be living in containers for at least the next two years, and with freezing winter temperatures approaching, followed by summers that get well over 100 F, air conditioning/heating is needed for health, sanitation and quality of life.
  • Building playgrounds in areas where children have no access to recreational areas.
  • Improving access to clean and safe washrooms for women and children living in tents and container communities.
  • Providing underwear and feminine hygiene products to women in need. Many women are forced to skipping school or miss work when they have their periods.
  • Continue providing access to children’s psychological therapy following this unimaginable tragedy.

Our Experience Volunteering With Mavi Kalem In Antakya, Turkey

During our time with Mavi Kalem, we participated in a couple of playground projects in some towns located around Antakya. Fortunately for the kids, we didn’t actually construct any playground equipment. But we did help Mavi Kalem with their social media. And we schmoozed with a local mayor (awkward pic included below).

We also helped distribute school supplies for kindergarten students who were back in the classroom for the first time since February 2023, and we visited the local bazaar to buy ladies’ underwear.

Mavi Kalem suspended the distribution of relief supplies prior to our visit in September 2023. Many of the current projects are more macro, like building playgrounds, community centers, etc. It can be difficult to integrate into their workflow for more labor-intensive tasks, but you can help with their social media, video making and photo taking. You can also pitch them other ideas depending on your skills.

Our experience with Mavi Kalem was entirely positive, and we can vouch for the good work they do in the community.

Contact information:

  • Arzu: Istanbul-based contact in-charge of coordinating any volunteering engagements. Arzu speaks great English.
  • Meryem: head of Mavi Kalem’s Antakya-based team.

WOTW Tip: unless you speak Turkish, you will need a translator. Luckily there is a fantastic translator named Ali Ayran who lives near Antakya. You can reach him on Whatsapp: (+90) 531 607 10 86. He’s the nicest guy and has a beautiful family that you have to meet 🙂

How to get to Antakya, Turkey?

The city of Antakya has an airport, but service continues to be extremely limited as of September 2023. You may be able to find flights from Istanbul or Ankara, however, the most likely scenario is that you will drive to Antakya from either Gaziantep, Adana or Mersin. 

Note that domestic flights in Turkey are extremely affordable. We recommend flying into Istanbul and then continuing on to Gaziantep or Adana.

From here, the best way to get to Antakya is by car. There are affordable buses that go between these spots, but moving around Antakya without a car is extremely challenging. We rented from Budget in Gaziantep’s city center. The service was good, and the car was reasonably priced at $38/day for an automatic car. The rental was booked through Expedia.

Note: there is a local car rental company in Antakya that you can contact over Whatsapp. Their quoted price was quite a lot higher ($50/day) than what we paid with Budget, but they could be a good option if you want to support a more local business.

Where to stay?

As you can imagine, there are not many hotels left standing in Antakya. We stayed in an Airbnb that seemed best in terms of overall location. The little house is a 5-minute drive to where the old city center used to be and also 5 minutes to the grocery store. There are a few small markets and restaurants in the general area.

Photo of the inside of our comfortable Airbnb.

The Airbnb survived the earthquake with barely a scratch, and water, electricity and plumbing have been fully restored. Even better, the neighbors are related to the host, and they were super welcoming and helpful.

Note that the buildings in the neighborhood have largely been demolished, and it is not walkable.

Click here to for the Airbnb listing: $36 per night.

Mavi Kalem recommended Kalipso Park Hotel & Teras Aqua Park but their location wasn’t ideal for us. The Airbnb linked above is also closer to the Mavi Kalem field office (20 mins or so)

Tips For Getting around Hatay

Local transportation is extremely tricky. There are buses that operate throughout the city, but bus stops are virtually gone. You will need to wait along dusty roads with no clear reference for where you need to be picked up or where you need to go.

In addition to the basic challenge of public transportation, so many things that once existed are now gone or have moved. Businesses that might show up on Google Maps are likely no longer there. And walking for basic errands would be confusing, uncomfortable and probably unsuccessful.

We 100% advise getting a car while you are in Antakya.

Is it safe To Visit Hatay After The Earthquakes?

Earthquakes are unpredictable. And Antakya sits on a fault line. There is no way for us to tell you that another earthquake won’t happen again. You need some tolerance for risk if you choose to visit. 

Natural disaster aside, we can say that we felt safe in our Airbnb, and the welcome we received made us feel at ease anywhere we went. 

Nevertheless, we advise not to walk around at night for several reasons. There are virtually no sidewalks anymore, and streets are poorly lit. You risk injuring yourself by tripping/falling over debris or cracks in pavement. Also, the area around many container and tent communities are poorly lit. Desperate situations make things unpredictable.

Other tips For Your Visit To Antakya

  • Most roads are open, though construction is fluid. Some streets that appear open on Google Maps may be closed for repair.
  • Wifi is available in some places, though our Airbnb didn’t have it.
  • Cell service is available. We made calls from WhatsApp when we weren’t connected to WiFi without any problems.
  • There are many ATMs and gas stations in Antakya.
  • Grocery stores and some markets are open, though the selection is not as wide as before the earthquake.
  • Restaurants are limited, but they are available, clean and serve delicious food. Here were two of our favorite places to eat:
    • Saymin Et Lokantasi: for great mezes, kebabs and grilled meats in a sit-down environment.
    • Necmi Usta Doner Salonu: everyone’s favorite casual chicken doner spot. We ate here three times 😎 Type in this address to find the new location: Dogan Sk. 31060 Hatay Hatay Merkez Türkiye
  • Remember Google Maps is tricky, and places will still show up even though they are destroyed. 

PS: locals will give you the best recs. Just ask around 😉

How else to help Earthquake Victims In Hatay?

We learned that it is difficult to send goods from abroad due to a bureaucratic system that complicates the import of humanitarian supplies.

On the other hand, financial donations still go a long way in this part of Turkey. And frankly, money is exactly what organizations in this area need to continue providing safe and comfortable housing, psychological support, school supplies and more.

You can donate to Mavi Kalem in two different ways:

Final thoughts About Turkey Earthquake Volunteering

We hope the information in this post is enough to get the ball rolling for you to volunteer for earthquake victims in Turkey. The recovery process will take years, so know that you are never too late to make a difference.

Even though we came here to support the recovery efforts, somehow it felt like we received more in kindness and generosity than we could ever hope to give. The Turks are the epitome of hospitality, even now.

Thank you for supporting the people of Turkey in their effort to rebuild their city and their lives after this unimaginable tragedy.

Thanks for reading.


PS: Aimara journaled the whole time we were in Antakya. The post is a great resource to understand exactly how we felt each day. Spoiler alert: it was an emotional rollercoaster!

Still have questions about becoming a Turkey earthquake volunteer? Reach out in the comments or DM us on Instagram!

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