When the news broke about the earthquakes that struck Türkiye and Syria on Monday 6th February, I instantly felt numb. I have wondered in the past what one might do if an earthquake suddenly strikes and they find themselves trapped under piles of rubble. I am claustrophobic. My body shudders even now just thinking about it. I have shuddered every night since then thinking about it.
By Wednesday 8th February, as I prepared for the weekly staff meeting at the UWC International Office, the death told had risen to about 14,000 and projected to reach 20,000 (now over 50,000). My mind could not fathom it. I was overcome with grief. And then I thought about the people who were still trapped alive underneath the buildings; I thought about those who had been crushed to death; I thought about the families who were oscillating between hope and fear, wondering if their loved ones would make it. I saw the video of the little girl who was pulled alive from the rubble, still joined to her mother by the umbilical cord. That little child now named after her mother, Afraa, was possibly delivered through the impact of the earthquake and took her first breath and spent her first living hours exposed to a cold world of concrete, dust and darkness. I closed my eyes and felt the grief rush all over me again.
At the staff meeting, I did not feel that my thoughts were coherent as I attempted to channel my feelings into words. I invited colleagues to share a moment of silence which I was not eager to end. I then invited them to share some thoughts of theirs. The air felt heavy. One of us had relatives in Türkiye who were still unaccounted for. I felt numb again. I acknowledged the feeling of powerlessness that often accompanies disasters like this. We all felt it a year ago when Ukraine was brutally attacked and drawn into an unprovoked war, and we have felt it several times since then when school children were massacred by a gunman in Uvalde, Texas and when an unarmed black man was beaten to death in Memphis, Tennessee by the law enforcement officers who should have been protecting him. I have felt it when an innocent young woman, Sarah Everard, who was walking home from her friend’s house in Brixton, London was accosted, raped, strangled to death and had her body burned by a police officer. Each day has brought its share of devastating news and the accompanying sense of disillusionment.
In February 2022, when asked how the UWC movement would respond to the Russian attack on Ukraine, I said that we will do what we are best positioned to do – we would double down on educating for peace, intentionally increasing our efforts to identify promising changemakers from parts of the world who are least likely to want to get along but who need to do so for the sake of peace in the world. UWC schools and colleges have built a strong reputation for educating Israeli and Palestinian students together alongside students from China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Tibet; with students from Serbia and Kosovo, Ethiopia and Eritrea and other such parts of the world. We committed to advocating for increased scholarship offers for students from Ukraine, Russia and Belarus. When the world loses its conscience, we must find ours.
It is my strong belief that our best response when we feel least hopeful is to take action. We might make the occasional social media post to express solidarity and to condemn injustice, but our true response is the action that we take, more than the words that we share.
And so this week, as I wrote my introduction for the monthly UWC International Newsletter, I felt a greater sense of purpose over grief. I was strengthened by the knowledge that the actions that we took last year in the wake of the attack on Ukraine have yielded results for a group of young people who will be on their way to UWC schools and colleges later this year. Not me, but the brave Ukrainians who stepped forward to run a selection process to identify and nominate a group of exceptional young people for scholarships. We have not ended the war, but we have played our part to support the education of a new generation of peacebuilders and advocates for a united world. I was also encouraged to know that across UWC schools and colleges, there are active fundraising campaigns to support the victims of the earthquake in Türkiye and Syria. We are responding as we are best positioned to do. It is true that we find our greatest purpose when we take action.
I concluded the newsletter introduction by saying “It is a common feeling when disaster strikes around the world to feel powerless and incapable of making a difference, but we must be propelled by the UWC values of action and person example, compassion and service, and personal challenge. This is one more opportunity for us to live up to our mission. May we rise to the challenge. “
PS: Students at UWC Atlantic College are raising funds in support of the Disasters Emergency Committee and students at Li Po Chun United World College of Hong Kong are raising funds through ACT Alliance. Please show your support. We also support credible organisations including UWC-affiliated organisations like the Red Cross and UNHCR as well as UNICEF, Oxfam & Doctors Without Borders.