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Earthquake survivors in southern Turkey struggle with mental health two months later


The survivors of the huge earthquakes that struck Turkey and Syria two months ago still tremble in fear at reminders of that night. More than 56,000 people died in the two countries. For the millions who experienced it but survived, shock and grief persist. NPR's Fatma Tanis went to one of the worst-hit cities in southern Turkey, Antakya, and has this report.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

FATMA TANIS, BYLINE: The parking lot of a stadium, one of the few standing large structures in Antakya, is now a vast tent camp for thousands of earthquake survivors. It's overseen by the Turkish government and aid organizations. Children play outside some big tents that are covered in their drawings and labeled psychosocial support as their mothers watch from a distance.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #3: (Non-English language spoken).

TANIS: One of them is 34-year-old Hafsa Basar, who escaped with her children when their six-floor building collapsed during the earthquake, crushing many of their neighbors. They hopped over the balcony, which had fallen on their car. The only things they could manage to grab were their two parakeets.

HAFSA BASAR: (Speaking Turkish).

TANIS: Since then, she tells me, her young daughter has been unable to sleep at night, often waking up screaming. Basar then started sending her kids to the therapy tent, where mental health professionals have volunteered to help children and families.

BASAR: (Through interpreter) I'm not sure how they did it exactly. They play some games with the children and talk to them, but my daughter is less panicked now.

TANIS: As we're chatting, a woman named Maide Heybeli overhears us and approaches, two children in tow. She appears frazzled and at her wit's end with her kids.

MAIDE HEYBELI: (Speaking Turkish).

TANIS: Her younger daughter, who's 4, just won't stop crying, she says, going at times for four or five hours straight.

HEYBELI: (Through interpreter) She can feel it when the aftershocks happen. Even when the wind blows, she starts crying, and we can't calm her down. She's started to be extremely jealous of her siblings, too.

TANIS: Then there's her older daughter, who got briefly separated from her family the night of the quake and couldn't find them. Normally calm and well behaved, the 6-year-old girl will not leave her mother's side for a moment. Heybeli doesn't know what to do anymore. She has her own trauma and nightmares. They lost her home and several relatives. Her relationship with her husband has been suffering as a result, too.

HEYBELI: (Speaking Turkish).

TANIS: Heybeli hasn't heard about the mental health support. This camp is big, and there's a lot going on. Hafsa Basar, who has been sending her kids to therapy tents, tells her about the benefits she's seen after her kids worked with trained professionals.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #4: (Non-English language spoken).

HEYBELI: (Non-English language spoken).

TANIS: Of them is Cansel Ipek, a psychologist who, like many others here, took an unpaid leave of absence from her job to volunteer in the quake zone. The earthquake disrupted millions of lives, and Ipek says people are still in shock, unable to process their anger or grief.

CANSEL IPEK: (Speaking Turkish).

TANIS: She says right now they're treating kids in groups, but people here don't have the security and stability needed for one-on-one therapy. They're still focused on getting shelter, food, water and hygiene.

IPEK: (Speaking Turkish).

TANIS: But Ipek is also on the lookout for any signs of dangerous behavior like suicide or psychosis. They're trying to educate people as well, especially women and children, to help protect them against abuse, sexual or physical and domestic violence.

IPEK: (Speaking Turkish).

TANIS: The scale of this disaster is so large, Ipek says they're looking at years of mental health support needed - not only for survivors, but first responders, rescue teams and aid workers who've been traumatized, too. Fatma Tanis, NPR News, Antakya, Turkey. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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