Caoimhe, an Irish woman rushed to help Antakya: “My Arabic knowledge created an open space that made earthquake victims feel safe and close, ‘warmed’ us”
“Alone, they remain,
like the elderflower
Alone they are,
collecting the leaves of time.
Oh you, waiting for the snow,
don’t you want to return?
Shout for them in the rain, oh wolf,
perhaps they would hear my call.”
[Talal Haidar, Wahdon, 1974]
Caoimhe is one of the thousands of volunteers, she had been reached Nehna from Ireland and helped the people of Antakya the majority of whom were deeply connected. We had a interview with a person who made direct contacts with earthquake victims with his strong expressive ability to help my roots, and Antakya, to write down the interesting intersection story of Nehna’s debt perceptions and to make her voice heard.
Interview: Elif Işıl Türkmen
Hello Caoimhe! I would like to start with a thanks from my heart, for all you’ve done Antioch! You are an human right defender, fimmaker, educator and therapist. Could we know you much more? Could you introduce yourself to Nehna readers?
First of all, thank you and my very deep respect for all the community-rooted, committed and compassionate work that Nehna has been doing in the aftermath of the earthquake, as well as for many years preceeding it.
I am, as you mentioned, a mental health and psychosocial worker, filmmaker and educator but here in Hatay/Antioch, more than anything else, I think, I am a witness- just one of many thousands of volunteers and solidarity activists from around Turkey, and the world, who wanted to respond to the grief, devastation and trauma that families and communities across the earthquake zone had experienced- in whatever very humble ways we could. I am one of many, many responders who have tried to accompany and humbly support people as they mourn, day by day, week by week, during this incredibly difficult, painful and uncertain time in their lives.
Although I am Irish by birth, I grew up in and have worked in many different countries and cultural contexts, so my own sense of home is a fluid one, with ‘home’ and identity more than anything, for me, meaning being amongst people of shared values, and the expressions of solidarity and love that come with collective action- whether that is responding to human rights violations and wars, or natural disasters exacerbated by political interests that prioritise capital over peoples safety and wellbeing.
So, although it has been deeply sad to witness the scale of the suffering and grief in Hatay/Antioch and elsewhere, post-earthquake, I have also witnessed the strength- and deep empathy- of the community to community, people to people response, as well as also the frustration (at systemic absence and inefficacy) that is present in the region. More than anything, it has been both an honour and privilege to spend time amongst the beautiful and diverse peoples and communities of Hatay, and to try to accompany them for a very small part of their long, difficult journey of recovery.
Such a greet pleasure know you! I still remember when I saw your message. Then, as soon as I met the conditions for your offer to help, a question came to my mind: “I wonder how the Irish woman got to us?” How did you reach Nehna, where did you hear about it?
Over ten years ago I was en route to Syria and we drove through Hatay. I did not, unfortunately, visit Samandağ at the time, but I had wanted to, and in retrospect really wish that I had. After the earthquake, I read a powerful article in the Guardian, by the Italian journalist, Lorenzo Tondo and photographer, Alessio Mamo and team, in which they interviewed an eloquent young Masters psychology student and activist, Baris, about the loss of his grandparents, friends and childhood memories.
I was deeply moved by the interview, and was on my way to Hatay/Antioch to work with a Psychological First Aid mobile team, so I found Baris and also academic and activist, Ari, on social media- ironically, via a dear Lebanese friend in Beirut (where I used to live) called Helena Nassif, who shared one of Ari’s beautifully-written articles.
Then other volunteer friends shared a post about Nehna and the great work of St Ilyas church and soup kitchen, and we began to organise some humble resources and supplies, and to try to connect other friends and international organisations working in Hatay with the church, too.
The day before I travelled to Hatay, I was online teaching a course for a group of Masters students in Ireland, about forced migration and the bleak humanitarian and rights situation of refugee camps in Lesvos and Europe, and one of the students was Lebanese-Armenian, and it turned out that she was originally from Vakayfli, where I ended up in two days later- her ancestral village that she had never seen. While visiting Vakayfli, and Samandağ in general, the inter-generational trauma of this land, and what exile means, in terms of identity, made the slogan ‘mah rihne, nehna hon’ resonate even more.
There were disasters in many cities, but how did you cross paths with Hatay?
I went to other places that were impacted by the earthquake, but I think Hatay/Antioch made sense to me most, in terms of where to base myself. There was, and is, a really organised grassroots, feminist, community-led structure- even amidst the initial post-earthquake chaos, coordinated by groups such as Samandag Dayanisma and Hatay Deprem Dayanismasi and others. I can communicate with warmth, in terms of language (I have lived in Lebanon, Palestine, Syria and Iraq, so I speak Arabic) and also, the diversity and plurality of the region is something very special, and so important to safe-guard.
Finally, politically, in terms of minority communities, contemporarily but also within a historical context of profound injustice, exile and suffering, being present as people mobilise, and demonstrate, as an expression of rooted identity, and their right to remain, felt like where I wanted to be.
Besides, you had friends from other countries, they came to Samandağ from Antakya to drop the pots they had, how did you coordinate with them, and you preferred the soup kitchen in the church, which was established by the efforts of Anna Maria Beylunioğlu and her friends from Nehna, to direct… Why St. Elias Church’s soup kitchen in Samandağ?
There was, and still is, so much solidarity that was mobilised in the first few days and weeks after the earthquake- much of it community-led. I had been working in a refugee camp in Lesvos, Greece, for nine months prior to February, and when the earthquake happened many activists and volunteers there wanted to help, in whatever humble ways they could. Some of them drove a mobile kitchen to Hatay/Antioch, and from there we connected with you, and the church, and with other community organisations.
Anyone that I know who has visited the St Ilyas church has been so very impressed by the level of organisation, the amazing energy of Father Abdullah and his family, of Karim & Leila, Uzeyir, Umut, Ozge, Sevilay, Selma and Lily and all the volunteer chefs. They’re cooking and serving hot, nutritious food, daily, to a large amount of Samandağ families, which is important, but they’ve also created a space of community where people feel safe and supported, and in which there is so much love.
We were there, with Ari, Baris and his mother, on the night of February 20th, during the 6.4 earthquake, and had just exited the St Ilyas church minutes before the roof collapsed. Even when the third earthquake was happening, though, within all the fear and anxiety that families sheltering in the parking lot were experiencing, it felt like the church community was an important anchor for everyone- and a powerful emotional resource amidst all the uncertainty.
Also, personally, having grown up in a quite liberation-theology, pro social-justice Catholic upbringing, I really resonated with the beauty of a ‘people’s Church’, one in which everyone works together, that hierarchies of power recede, and in which our solidarity and humility, in terms of who we are serving, is a priority. That, for me, is what prayer is, basically- serving soup with love as a side-dish.
How was your journey to come to Hatay, what did the conditions and the state of the people make you think after you came? What did you feel?
I think I felt mainly two things- deep sadness, and deep respect, for the courage and care of so many people that we met. I have worked in many war and natural disaster zones, and in contexts of political oppression- in Iraq, Mexico, Lebanon, Haiti, Ukraine, Palestine, Syria, Guatemala, as well as refugee camps in Europe etc. So I wasn’t, perhaps, as shocked as some of my colleagues by the destruction, although the scale of it is much bigger and much more devastating than anything I had witnessed before, even in war zones.
But what impacted me most was the level of loss, of entire extended families killed, or families where there was only one survivor, some of them teenagers, now so alone and vulnerable in life. Also, the families of the disappeared, whose grief is frozen, or ‘ambiguous grief’ because they cannot have funerals or rituals for and around their loved ones, and who, despite everything and the time that has passed, still hold fragile, silent, poignant hope that they might be still alive somewhere.
And the trauma- the children who still are non-verbal/who haven’t spoken since the earthquake, those that are fainting every time there is an aftershock, those whose nervous systems have remain activated and alert, whose small bodies remain ready for flight, to flee, or immobilised. Their little hands in ours, the experiences that their eyes communicate, but also their smiles and laughter (particularly when we travelled around with a group of friends from Lebanon, coordinated by the amazing Sabine Choucair, who are amazing clowns with the group Clown Me In and Clowns Without Borders) and creation of joy, imagination and play even amidst the rubble.
Also, as we worked with the Psychological First Aid team I was there with, what impacted me, and perhaps the whole team, the most was how unsafe people still feel, and how difficult stabilisation is when the earth is still shaking between their feet, with the aftershocks, and when people (particularly Syrian refugees and residents in Turkey) still struggle to access the most basic of supports, like weather-resistant tents- and the most basic of human rights. And how difficult it is for parents to rebuild that sense of safety and co-regulation with their children, when they are still processing the life-changing shock of it all.
Also, all the questions and worries that parents have about the future, of home and livelihood and how they will economically provide for their families, and rebuild in the future, is so hard for people, now.
Plus, very importantly, maintaining dignity, when families and individuals are suddenly in a position of enforced dependency- lining up for meals and water and second-hand clothes- which is really hard for everyone, and can bring up embarrassment or even shame, which is something that many organisations need to always remember when distributing supplies- how to do so in a way that doesn’t further erode people’s sense of dignity and self-agency, in a way that is gentle and respectful and horizontal.
Was the language barrier effective?
I speak Arabic, so communicating with most people wasn’t a problem, except for children in Hatay, for whom Arabic unfortunately seems to have been slowly lost, but even the little ones generally understood some words and most importantly we could always communicate through smiles and laughter and play, and my very, very basic Turkish vocabulary. Particularly elders, older aunts and uncles, I think, found it intriguing, and possibly sometimes humorous, that I could speak Arabic, as a foreign volunteer, and it really ‘warmed the space’ of trust and proximity, and led to many beautiful conversations over tea and oranges.
Also, songs and music, particularly during nights spent in the tent of a now dear-friend, Ferida and her brilliant daughters, one of whom, Nasli, is a very talented musician and whose songs, even without translation from Turkish, were understood in all the grief and hope they held.
One of the families that I visited many times was that of Ali, a 84-year old elder, a beautiful, deeply dignified man. He was from Samandağ but had worked as a bus driver for over 30 years in Lebanon, before he was paralysed in an accident in his 60s. He now lives in a tent in the Istanbul Municipality camp, listening to old Lebanese songs, on a flimsy camp-bed, cared for by his daughter and grandson. It is so hard for him, and them, the lack of privacy, having to be bathed and changed in the tent, the heat during the days and cold at night. And at an age when he should be able to rest, and reflect, having to now carry all the uncertainty of what will happen next, in his and their life, and to experience homelessness and displacement, is just really hard, for him and the hundreds of thousands of other displaced families and individuals.
So he retreats into his memories, listening to Fairouz and Wadih Safih, and remembering his wife, who died ten years ago and whom he loved very deeply, because perhaps the past is a gentler place than the present.
Of course, you did this under very difficult conditions while helping. Under what conditions did you work, what did you and your friends do?
It was, and is, at times emotionally quite heavy work, but also work that it is a privilege to be able to do- to work alongside very beautiful families and communities, as they try to support eachother, collectively. We worked during the days with a with a great Turkish and international Psychological First Aid and psychosocial supports team and travelled around camps and villages in the region in vans, to 3 or 4 locations per day. We engaged with adults, adolescents and children, from tent to tent, and also did broader, accessible psychoeducational sessions with communities, to try to normalise alot of the emotional, autonomic nervous system and physical reactions that people were having, in the aftermath of the earthquake, as well as capacity-build with exercises and techniques to self-sooth and self-regulate.
After the day work with the PFA team, if not back at our polytunnel base in a nearby village, at night I would often sleep in a friend, Selma’s, tent at the church or at other solidarity hubs, joining other volunteers in unpacking trucks of donated supplies, peeling potatoes for the soup kitchen, washing the cooking pots for the next day, sitting and drinking tea with people as they shared their experiences and memories- doing what everyone else who volunteers in Hatay/Antioch is doing- which is a bit of everything.
And like all the other volunteers, that meant not much sleep and very few showers, but we could leave and take a couple of days break every few weeks if necessary, whereas the families we were working with remain in the heat of their tents, or flooding and cold when it rains, with no clarity at all about their futures. And the situation is getting worse by the day- particularly with the dumping of potentially toxic/asbestos material and huge amounts of rubble next to camps where families are living, on the Samadağ shoreline, and on agricultural land- which, as you know, has been the focus of many of the recent, powerful demonstrations.
And as someone who first visited Turkey over a decade ago, as, in retrospect, a very naïve and uninformed volunteer, who then went on a steep learning curve- mentored by brave Turkish and Kurdish human rights defenders and feminist activist friends- this mass dumping of the rubble feels like a metaphor for the state/official response, contemporarily and historically, in general towards Hatay/Antioch, unfortunately.
So, part of being there was listening and learning and trying to amplify people’s needs and priorities to friends and solidarity groups back home, so that once the news cycle has moved on, people abroad stay active, connected and responsive, and continue to try to practically support grassroots community groups in Samandağ, Hatay and other locations in the earthquake zone.
What did other friends from abroad do in this disaster situation, what did they think? How did this disaster and its effects reflect on the people through the media?
There has been an immense initial outpouring of international solidarity and support, and people were devastated by the images and stories, particularly the photo of the father holding the hand of his 14-year old daughter, until her body was unearthed from the rubble of their destroyed appartment. I think that heart-breaking image narrated the loss, trauma and grief of all of the earthquake victims, in Turkey and in Syria, and will remain one of the most powerful images of this disaster, because it speaks of love and loss and loyalty, and the overwhelming pain of losing a child.
I think one of the challenges now, in terms of international support, is to maintain the solidarity, past when the news cycle moves on, and to ensure that people to people to people, community to community mutual aid is for the long-term, and continues for the years to come.
There were 2 marches in Samandag, the first of which was the bahhur (myrrh) and basil walking/protest march on the 40th day. The second is for the rubble piles… Did you have a chance to participate? Or what did you hear from those who went?
I attended the bahhur walking procession/protest, but was away for the rubble demonstrations, which I’ve been watching online, and are such an important community mobilisation against the toxic dumping, and both the health and environmental impacts of it.
The bahhur procession was one of the most emotionally powerful demonstrations I have ever participated in. I was with a wise and calm anarchist friend from Izmir, and it was hard to describe, for both of us- beacuse it was so deeply sad and grief-infused, and it also created a space for collective mourning and some catharsis, through that process, of people literally holding eachother in their pain, as well as calling for political accountability.
So, it was political, in terms of demanding rights and justice and an end to impunity, but also so powerfully spiritual. Walking with new, and now very dear, friends from Samandağ, I felt almost as if those who had died, all their faces and lives, hopes and dreams, were somehow there amongst us, also walking, holding the hands of those who now mourned them.
Also, as we walked, I was observing Cagla- who is a brilliant organiser, and psychologist from Samandağ- and her local feminist comrades, and the way they helped to organise the demonstration and hold all of what it represented- the political, the trauma, the grief and collective courage – with such care, and intuitive wisdom, as activists but also as community members, from Samandağ, who are also grieving the loss of families, friends and community, was powerful, and poignant.
So it was an incredibly sad procession, but also an important, powerful and in some small and quiet ways, healing process for everyone who participated, I think.
What you want to describe, which creates an intense emotion in you, sadness, anger, surprise, joy… is there such an event?
Each day has brought such a range of emotions, from grief to joy (particularly with children and families of the disappeared) and I have been grateful for that range of emotions, because once I metabolise it, I try to make sure that it informs and deepens the trauma support work we’re doing. But also it allows me to to hopefully be fully present, always, as an ally, a sister, a comrade, a friend to families and individuals and survivors, who have become dear friends, and many of them like extended family at this stage.
As a human rights defender, as a benefactor, you do a lot of good work… Can you tell our readers a little more about the good work you do?
Honestly, whatever we do is humble in the face of what we’re collectively struggling against (wars, injustice, racism, patriarchy, human rights violations, authoritarianism, climate change etc) but, like many others, I have worked for the past over 20 years, with communities struggling to access rights, mainly refugee and undocumented communities in camps in the Middle East and Europe, and also indigenous communities in Chiapas, Mexico and Guatemala, in Haiti and over the past year and a half, in Ukraine.
The work has some impact, in terms of people to people solidarity, but not on systemic change, unfortunately, in many contexts, so often it feels as if we are losing on so many fronts. I’m a perpetual optimist, though, so I hold hope, always, even when it’s a challenge to. But people, at the grassroots, are generally amazing, everywhere and I am continually awed and deeply humbled by people’s courage, strength and love.
You have taken part in aid coverage in many countries before. You have also worked in Lebanon and Palestine, which are especially close to Antakya. How do you compare Antakya, the people of Antakya (Hatay-Anitoch) with the cities in Lebanon and Palestine, and the people there, did you notice the similarities?
There are so many similarities- aspects of the culture/s, dignity, hospitality, kindness, food and relationship with the earth. There are differences, too, but ones that make Hatay/Antioch feel like a wonderful hybrid, somehow, of so many different traditions and peoples and histories.
All of which makes the physical destruction- of such a pluralistic, ethnically and religiously diverse region- that much more of a loss. But that diversity, and plurality, which is unfortunately so unique, particularly now, is held in people and their memories, and will survive and remain constant, I am articulating daily in the ‘mah rihne, nehna hon’ affirmation.
If you visited other cities in Turkey and came to Hatay/Antioch before, how did you find Hatay?
I’ve felt much more at ‘home’ in Hatay than anywhere else in Turkey, and look forward to coming back soon, to those have become very dear friends and whom I have such respect- and love- for.
We, As Nehna team, as antioch people that you’ve touched in their hearts, we are thankful to you… Thank you Caoimhe, and Caoimhes.
Thank you all, for all your deeply committed and tireless work, solidarity and witness.