Graduate raising funds for victims of Turkey earthquake

Grand Valley graduate Katie Hoffswell poses for a photo in Turkey.
Grand Valley graduate Katie Hoffswell is spending the academic year teaching English in Turkey.
Image credit - Courtesy

A dream trip to Turkey became a harrowing experience for recent graduate Katie Hoffswell and prompted her and friends to organize a fundraising campaign to benefit survivors of the devastating earthquakes. 

Hoffswell, who was a graduate assistant at the Padnos International Center and received her master’s degree through the College of Education and Community Innovation’s College Student Affairs Leadership program, was awarded a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant Award a year ago

The Fulbright English Teaching Assistant Programs place students in classrooms around the world to help local teachers with English instruction during the academic year. Hoffswell arrived in September and has been teaching and living in Erzurum, a small city in eastern Turkey. 

“I had been to Istanbul in the past, but eastern Turkey is quite different,” Hoffswell said. “It is not common to come across other English speakers in Erzurum, so it was important that I learn the basics of Turkish when I arrived.”

Hoffswell is one of 19 other Fulbright English Teaching Assistants serving schools around the country. 

“We became fast friends and love to travel to each other's host cities,” Hoffswell said. 

It was during one of her excursions that the massive 7.8 magnitude earthquakes struck Turkey and Syria on February 6. Hoffswell said she and a group of friends were sightseeing in Sanliurfa, a city about 115 miles east of the epicenter in southern Turkey. Just days before her stop in Sanliurfa, the group had visited Gaziantep and the Hatay Province, which were heavily damaged by the earthquake and its aftershocks.

“I had never experienced an earthquake before,” Hoffswell said. “My friends and I immediately jumped out of our beds to take cover. I took the giant comforter off my bed to protect my head from anything falling. 

“It felt like strong airplane turbulence, but much scarier. After a few minutes, the hard shaking stopped briefly. The floor and beds in our hotel were covered with plaster that came off the walls. The aftershocks continued throughout the rest of the night.”

Hoffswell said it wasn’t until the next morning when she and her friends grasped the severity of the aftermath. 

“The news station playing on the TV in our hotel lobby was repeatedly showing a video of a building in Sanliurfa totally collapsing,” Hoffswell said. “The hotel receptionist said in Turkish, ‘You know, that building is only two blocks away.’” 

The earthquake was measured as the second strongest to affect the region since 1668 with more than 55,000 people killed. Hoffswell said fortunately she and her friends managed to evacuate the area by bus and return to their host cities.

“Everyone here has been affected,” Hoffswell said. “I am extremely saddened to hear from my Turkish friends who lost family members and loved ones. 

“Several of my students are now homeless and to make matters worse, southern Turkey has had an especially brutal winter, so many people who are homeless or waiting to be evacuated are trapped in the cold.”

Hoffswell said after seeing the devastation and the toll it took on her students, she and her fellow teaching assistants rallied together to begin a fundraising campaign. Through personal solicitations on Venmo and via Chuffed, a global crowdfunding platform for social causes based in Australia, she said she and her friends have raised more than $20,000.

“The money is being split between three amazing organizations, along with a student fund that we created to send money directly to victims who my friends and I personally know are in need,” Hoffswell said.

Relief efforts in the region are continuing with several options available to help as well. 

GVSU’s Turkish faculty members are also raising funds for Bridge to Turkiye Give Lively, a U.S.-based non-profit that is mobilizing assistance to provide, food, water, warmth, shelter and children’s needs. This effort is led by GVSU faculty members Feryal Alayont, professor of mathematics; Erkmen Giray Aslim, assistant professor of economics; Fatma Pir Cakmak, visiting professor of chemistry, Atilla Ozgur Cakmak, assistant professor of engineering; Filiz Dogru, professor of mathematics; Figen Mekik, professor of geology, and Mehmet Sozen, professor of mechanical engineering.

The United Nations Children's Fund is working to provide relief for children and their families in areas affected by the earthquake. And, international organization Doctors Without Borders is providing medical assistance in the areas affected by the earthquakes.


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