‘Entire families are all gone’: Turkish chef in Singapore lost over 120 relatives in quakes
SINGAPORE – Each time he spoke with his brother in Turkey days after the Feb 6 earthquakes that hit their country and Syria, he was told more relatives had died.
It reached the point where Singapore permanent resident Ahmet Akpinar, 43, executive chef and owner of The Mediterranean Deli Turk in Far East Plaza, had had enough of the bad news and stopped talking to his brother for a while.
Now, a month after the devastating quakes, Mr Ahmet is still trying to come to grips with a tragedy that claimed the lives of more than 120 of his relatives.
Two earthquakes of magnitudes 7.8 and 7.6 struck both countries on Feb 6, causing more than 100,000 buildings to collapse, and turning homes into tombs. More than 50,000 people have died.
Mr Ahmet’s hometown in the Turkish city of Kahramanmaras was one of the worst hit.
Four days after the quake, his brother told him 15 family members had died, including their 70-year-old uncle, who had been trapped under the rubble of his apartment. The elderly man, who was living alone, had initially survived but died later.
In another call two hours later, Mr Ahmet’s brother said their family’s estimated death toll had risen to 30. Two more hours later, it became 50.
Over the next few days, Mr Ahmet discovered that more than 120 relatives had been declared dead.
Mr Ahmet said he could not take any more bad news and stopped talking to his brother for a week.
He said: “It’s very hard to believe. Sometimes when I am sitting alone, I think to myself if the earthquakes really happened in my city. I’m not talking about just losing a few family members, but entire families that are all gone.”
For over 200 years, across six generations, Mr Ahmet’s family has lived in the district of Kahramanmaras, which is about 4½ times the size of Singapore.
He lived in the city before he moved to Singapore in 2002 to pursue his culinary career. He married a Singaporean and has three children – aged 13, 10 and eight.
Among the family he lost was his late father’s sister and her family – three sons, three daughters-in-law and 10 grandchildren.
They had congregated together under one roof because of the winter – a common practice for Turkish people during the season, said Mr Ahmet.
Another uncle, a pastry chef who had gone to work, disappeared after the building he was working in collapsed.
Mr Ahmet could not work for 10 days. He said: “For a chef to cook good food, we must have the right mood. It’s not about skill or experience. When I was cooking, I remembered my relatives. I developed a fever, my body ached and I felt stressed.”
Mr Ahmet’s mother, 67, who lives alone and has a knee problem, survived. He said she ran down seven floors in her bare feet after the first quake.
When the second quake struck a few hours later, the building collapsed. She is now living with one of Mr Ahmet’s brothers and his family in a tent.
Mr Ahmet’s sister also survived despite being stuck under the rubble for three days.
But his cousin, housewife Meliha Yenikoy, 41, who lived in the same town, was not as fortunate.
She, her husband and three children – the youngest of whom was just three – were declared dead.
Having grown up with him, Ms Meliha was like a sister, said Mr Ahmet.
He said: “She was a very humble, nice and quiet person.”
Then, on Thursday, Mr Ahmet received unexpected good news. Ms Meliha’s second child, earlier presumed dead, was alive.
Before the quakes, Mr Ahmet had booked a ticket home for August, having not been back since 2018. Though he wanted to see his remaining family members, his mother told him not to come.
He said: “She told me usually people come for a holiday to enjoy, and I would not enjoy myself. Now, I have no place to go and stay.”
Mr Ahmet said he was touched by the generosity shown by those in Singapore, noting how the Turkish embassy had to stop collecting items due to the overwhelming response.
Aid agencies here continue to receive donations.
Singapore-based charity Rahmatan Lil Alamin (Blessings to all) Foundation has raised more than $2.15 million to support communities affected by the earthquake in Turkey and Syria, according to its Facebook post on Thursday.
As at Friday, Mercy Relief has collected about $280,000 for efforts in Turkey, while the Singapore Red Cross has collected more than $7 million for both countries.
Mr Ahmet said that during Ramadan, which begins on March 22, he plans to donate $10 from every bill at The Mediterranean Deli Turk to relief efforts in Turkey. He said another $10 from each bill will support the poor in Pakistan.
He said: “During Ramadan, we fast, so we can understand people who don’t have food and water. We will understand them, and we will help them as well.”
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