Earthquake survivors in Turkey flee to southern town seeking sanctuary

Inside Mersin Greek Orthodox church, weary refugees sleep on pews under ornate red and gold decor. Their homes were destroyed during Turkey’s earthquakes and they seek sanctuary in cities outside the region destroyed eight days ago.

The priest tells us around 20,000 of the country’s population of 85 million are Greek Orthodox – but everyone is welcome here. “We have opened our doors. We have had about 1,000 from Antakya Hatay,” he said.

There is space for up to 70 to spend the night in the church or on mattresses in a hall next door, where hot food is served three times a day.

All arrivals are registered in a database so survivors can check for missing loved ones.

Can Yakici, 41, fled with his wife and three children after their home near Antakya Hatay – 170 miles from Mersin – was badly damaged.

Yesterday, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced there were 35,418 deaths in the earthquakes, making it the country’s worst disaster in a century

Can tells us: “These earthquakes have set Turkey back 20 years, so it will take time to recover.

“We are really grateful for the support. I hope no one else experiences this pain, especially those with families, with children.”

Turkan Kocamahhul stands in a courtyard with her husband Riskallah, 58.

They came to the port city from Antakya with their two children, aged 17 and 18, and spent two nights at the church before moving to a hotel.

Turkan, 55, says: “After we got out, our house completely collapsed. We tried to find some stuff among the ruins, like shoes and warm clothes. It was dangerous but I had to look.” Her sister and niece were killed in the disaster. Her nephew is missing.

“I cannot explain this pain,” Turkan says. “There are no words.”

At the nearby Ataturk Cultural Centre, tons of donations are pouring in. So too do the refugees, queuing through the lobby with little more than the clothes on their backs. They wait to register and get supplies. We’re told 14,000 have received aid here.

Colorful drawings decorate one wall and volunteers entertain children while parents receive support.

A short drive away, converted shipping containers offer accommodation for 80 people.

Each unit holds two bunk beds.

Ismail Karadag, 78, is living here with his family after fleeing Adiyaman in south-east Turkey.

Ismail says: “This is a terrible disaster. Half of Adiyaman has been destroyed. Life has changed and we must try to forget what we saw.”

Local Mersin mayor Abdullah Ozyigit explains that the city is close to the earthquake zone. He says: “We have opened our arms…We are here until the people say we have done enough.”

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