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Southern Turkey struggles to observe Ramadan after devastation of earthquakes


Today is the first day of Ramadan, and normally it's a festive holiday. But for millions of people in southern Turkey and Syria, it will be bittersweet. They're still struggling following last month's earthquakes. More than 50,000 people died. Hundreds of thousands of homes were destroyed, thousands of people scattered in tent camps or other temporary housing. We're joined now by NPR's Fatima Tanis, who is in Gaziantep in southern Turkey. Hey, Fatma.


KELLY: So I want to hear a little more about just what it looks like in these towns and cities that I know so many people fled after the earthquake in early February. Have they started coming back, started coming home?

TANIS: They have. It's been slow. Yesterday, for the first time, I saw people on the streets. They were getting their Ramadan shopping done and their last midday coffee fix in since they won't be eating or drinking during the daytime for the next month. But many still aren't able to go back to their homes. Even here in Gaziantep, where there's been less damage than other cities, a lot of people are still in tents. Today we felt four aftershocks here, and I was actually at a tent camp during one of those. And it was a chilling reminder of how traumatized people are here. You know, children started crying. People were flying out of their tents, you know, asking each other, did you feel it? Is it over? One of them was Esma Tezcan, who was comforting her younger brother. Here she is.

ESMA TEZCAN: (Speaking Turkish).

TANIS: She says they are having a really hard time because that earthquake back in February was so violent, and they're still very afraid.

KELLY: I can imagine just - you know, to feel an aftershock and not wonder - and wonder, is this another big one, or what is it? When you ask people about Ramadan and whether they will be celebrating it, observing it, what is even the right word to use this year?

TANIS: Well, they are observing it, but it will be much more subdued. And you can, you know, tell by just being here. There are none of the usual decorations and lights. You know, at least 1,400 mosques in the region have been damaged or destroyed. So prayers are being held in small tents outside. Even restaurants aren't doing their special Ramadan menus here. But local officials are trying to work to sort of lift people's spirits at the tent camp I went to. I spoke to one guy who was organizing toys for children at a stall. His name is Zafer Yilmaz.

ZAFER YILMAZ: (Speaking Turkish).

TANIS: He says, you know, there will be cinemas and theater shows for kids as well as sweets and music concerts to distract people from the psychological stress and depression that they are in right now.

KELLY: I know another stop that you made today, Fatma, was at a community iftar. This is where people break their daily fast with what usually would be a large meal. Just take us there. Tell me what it was like.

TANIS: It was really crowded. There were really long lines. And, you know, the iftar tent is a traditional event that happens every year so that people in need can get food as well. But this year I heard from a lot of people that they came out because they are still, you know, grieving loved ones who died in the earthquake or they can't cook at home because of damage. And they're seeking the comfort of being outside and breaking their fast with the community.

KELLY: And just briefly, what kind of help, what kind of aid will earthquake survivors be getting?

TANIS: A big part of Ramadan is, of course, about charity work. And people say this Ramadan is going to be much more about helping out than any of the other traditions. Local officials, aid groups, restaurants are passing out food so people don't have to worry about that. And regular citizens are helping out as well. I spoke with one 75-year-old woman who was, you know, carrying bags so full she could barely lift them. She was walking from tent to tent, passing out dates. And she said she would be doing this all month. But there's just so many people who need help that there are - some are concerned about fatigue.

KELLY: Yeah. NPR's Fatma Tanis reporting in southern Turkey. Thank you.

TANIS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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