Local Turkiye

Turkiye’s small businesses fight to survive after devastating double earthquakes

In south-eastern Turkiye, just outside the city of Gaziantep and a few kilometres from the now-destroyed city of Antakya, not a single town is exempt from the visible signs left by the devastating earthquakes that hit the area on February 6.

In this region, where life flows slowly between farming and small local businesses,everything changed one night as the soil started shaking.

Six months after the day that cost the lives of more than 50,000 people and caused millions to rely on humanitarian aid to survive, according to the Ministry of Environment and Urbanization, 55,312 people are still living in tents, and 467,000 are residing in container cities.

In the city of Nurdağı, one of the most populated towns in the area with over 40,000 inhabitants, the level of destruction makes it difficult for the locals to imagine a future.

In the almost fully demolished and empty city centre, the wind moves the dust of debris from what was once the busiest downtown shopping boulevard, the bazaar.

In Nurdağı alone, 2,500 people died during the earthquake, and 20,000 survivors who lost their homes are now living in containers. Most of the facilities such as post offices, banks, supermarkets and clothes shops that used to animate the city for decades, are also now filling containers placed a few kilometres away from the old centre.

“We were more than 100 small business owners in here, only five of us survived,” says Eyüp, who decided to re-open his tailoring shop a month after the quake.

Eyüp knows everyone in town. When he opened in 1976, Nurdağı was transitioning from being a village to a town, and his shop was one of the first to emerge in the brand-new bazaar.

“We are trying our best to continue to provide a service for the community,” says Gülşen, Eyüp’s wife, while repairing a pair of red trousers with her sewing machine.

“Our shop was robbed during the chaos of the emergency. People even stole fabrics and sewing materials, that was the tip of the iceberg for me. I needed to start again and continue my job with what was left,” adds Eyüp.

Since their house collapsed in February, Eyüp and Gülşen have been living in a tent warming up with a stove to survive freezing temperatures, and are now in a container struggling with sweltering heat reaching 40°.

“The roof went down before I could realise what was happening. I was trapped underneath for six hours, only thinking about how long we could still be able to breathe. When I went out I discovered that all my relatives died under the rubble. It’s hard to say that life is back again, but somehow, we all need to keep our minds busy,” concludes Gülşen.

The streets surrounding Eyüp’s shop are a maze of broken shop signs, objects abandoned on the ground and white curtains flying from damaged houses. Few construction workers are busy rescuing parts and fixtures from buildings that will soon be demolished.

The city centre is expected to be rebuilt somewhere else. As per the government’s assessment, 298,448 buildings in the whole earthquake zone will need to be demolished, leading to the creation of an estimated 210 million tons of rubble which might contain toxic substances, according to some environmental organisations.

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has pledged to address the crisis by announcing construction plans for 650,000 housing units with over 300,000 buildings made available within the first year.

In the earthquake-affected provinces, approximately 40% of households are living below the poverty line, and the impact on the community of small business owners has exacerbated the already existing economic instability and raised inflation.

Surprisingly, the window shop of Ömer stands unaltered glittering among debris and dust. The goldsmith of Nurdağı reopened soon after the tragedy, in March, and has since then recorded a ceaseless flow of customers.

Initially, many of those who remained unemployed were coming to exchange gold for cash. As things started to improve, more were those interested in buying jewellery, especially necklaces and golden belts that, in this region of Anatolia, are typically bought on the occasion of weddings.

After working for seven years in a döner shop in Rome, the city where he met his wife, Ömer returned to his hometown in Turkiye to fulfil his lifelong dream of opening his own shop with his father.

“My son was only a few months old in February and everything in the house was falling, glasses, plates, furniture, but our house did not collapse. Initially, I did not have the courage to go and check what could have happened to my shop. All my life investments are there,” says Ömer.

After their house was declared unsafe and recently demolished, the family relocated to Gaziantep, from where Ömer travels back and forth to his shop every day. “I didn’t know if customers would still come, but reopening was essential for me because it would have allowed me to keep my brain away from overthinking and insecurity. I needed a normal routine.”

During the lunch break, Hamza brings a kebab sandwich to Ömer’s shop. The sense of loss and sorrow in Hamza, who lost his wife and children during the earthquake, kept him from resettling in a container, preferring instead to live in a garage where he now also stores what remains of his electronics shop. After his business was demolished, he reinvented himself as a food delivery worker for those working nearby.

A few metres away, the old Getin’s Cafe still stands as the focal point of the town. Since 1910, the cafe has been welcoming locals, farmers from the surrounding villages and truck drivers departing from the large industrial cities of the West to its vibrant atmosphere made up of ‘cay’ drinking rituals and the typical table game known as ‘okey’.

“This is a symbol of the city’s sociability that helps to keep the morale high. We did everything possible to be able to re-open just 20 days after the earthquake, despite the fact that we were still living in tents and the temperatures were low,” says Getin, whose family has been running the cafe for generations.

Getin is quite confident in the Turkish people’s resilience and capacity to rebuild from destruction. The calendar hanging on the wall of his shop still shows the 6th of February, because, as he explains, nobody should ever forget what happened.

Like other residents, he is particularly excited about the initiative of the municipality of Nurdağı to build, just a few metres away from his cafe, an earthquake memorial museum. The plan comprehends an area of 10,000 square metres dedicated to the remembrance of the victims, as well as an interactive path for education, prevention, and awareness.

“Indeed, life is getting better, but I believe that it will take up to five or 10 years to be able to live well again, the sense of loss is still something difficult to cope with. In the meantime, we need a place that makes the community feel connected to spend free time together. It is an essential need for the people, now more than ever,” concludes Getin.


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