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Fans of Turkish dramas refocus social media obsessions on helping victims of earthquakes

 Volunteers load donated items for earthquake victims onto a tractor trailer in Garland, Texas.
Stella M. Chávez
Volunteers load donated items for earthquake victims onto a tractor trailer in Garland, Texas.

On any given day, fans of Turkish dramas are busy tweeting about the latest plot twist in their favorite show or casting news of their favorite actor.

But the devastation in Turkey and Syria caused by two strong earthquakes has prompted fans to use social media to raise awareness of the needs in both countries.

So far, at least 41,000 people have died since the quakes and that number may still rise. More than 35,000 of those deaths happened in Turkey, making it that country’s deadliest disaster.

On Twitter, Instagram and other platforms, fans have been updating their followers with information on how to donate money or send supplies. Some have also expressed outrage over the Turkish government’s lax enforcement of building codes, demanding more accountability.

Fans haven’t limited their posts to the destruction in Turkey. Some are urging the international community to not forget about Syria and calling on the U.S. to lift its sanctions.

“I think it’s human nature. If you feel a connection to people — and it’s slightly unfair — because unless we as human beings feel a slight connection to other people, we don’t understand the depths of their tragedy,” said Sadaf Haider, a Texas-based journalist. She reviews Pakistani dramas and films for Dawn, a Pakistani English-language newspaper. But she also loves watching Turkish shows.

She said what’s viewed as entertainment is actually much more — the characters in these shows feel like friends or neighbors. And even if some viewers have never visited Turkey, they recognize the names of cities and provinces affected by the quakes.

“If we didn’t have that connection, it wouldn’t feel that close,” she said. “It would feel like something distant, something terrible and, you know, perhaps we’d donate and then we’d sort of like move on.”

There’s no way to really tell, but Haider believes this connection viewers have has helped boost donations to aid organizations.

An overwhelming response

In North Texas, the local Turkish American community has been coordinating relief efforts in several locations. Donated items have poured in from across the state.

Inside a Garland warehouse, a group of women sort and group items before packing them in boxes. Nearby, men push dollies stacked with boxes containing jackets, blankets, diapers and other supplies. The boxes are loaded onto tractor trailers to send via Turkish Airlines or in shipping containers.

Esh Selvi, whose company owns the warehouse, said he’s blown away by the response.

“We were expecting three truckloads in two weeks, and end of the first week, we already have 10 truckloads right now,” he said.

Selvi said they’ve received many clothes, but what they really need right now are heavy duty tents and generators.

Carolina Acosta-Alzuru is a professor in the College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Georgia. Her research focuses on the melodramatic serialized genre, including telenovelas and Turkish dramas, some of which air on Spanish-language networks.

She said there’s a noticeable difference in the social media response to the quakes.

“I follow the Turkish accounts and it's like two worlds,” she said. “The Turkish accounts are talking about this. And the rest of my accounts in the U.S., Mexico, Latin America — no. But the exception would be the fans of the Turkish dizis.”

For the non-viewer, Turkey seems far away, she said. There’s also a lack of knowledge and misperceptions about the country.

That’s not the case for those who are hooked on a Turkish series.

“They feel close to the area,” Acosta-Alzuru said. “They feel close to the culture because they have been watching these stories that are also designed to touch you emotionally.”

Acosta-Alzuru said fans also seeing another side of the actors and other artists, who’ve also been sharing non-stop information about relief efforts, some of them having lost their own family members.

Kerem Bürsin, a Turkish actor whose family moved to Texas when he was 12, appealed for help in English on Instagram and Twitter in a video that was widely shared.

Some actors were initially quiet on social media after the earthquake.

“But their fans were not,” Acosta-Alzuru said. “Their fans were organizing already fundraisers. They were doing the labor — the fans — and I was like, ‘Wow’… to see the fans mobilizing before the actor.”

Dizzy for Dizi, a podcast about Turkish series hosted by two Americans, has also been sharing helpful information on its accounts. They recorded a special introduction for its latest episode, which was recorded before the earthquake.

“We just want to feel like we are tangibly helping in some way, because it feels wrong to enjoy their entertainment and to have created a community of people we love and interact with because of those shows, but then not do what we can to help them in a time of great need,” said co-host Kristin Curran.

Eda Savaşeri, a copywriter in Istanbul, said she actually learned about the earthquake from a friend in Seattle whom she met through her dizi watching. Other international fans have also checked in on her.

Tweeting from the rubble

It’s a much different scene than in 1999, when the last major quake hit Turkey. Not everyone had cell phones then and there was no social media.

“This was really interesting and shocking that people even under the rubble were tweeting, ‘I’m here, save me.’ And a lot of people have been saved through those tweets,” Savaşeri said. “And my friends from dizi land [as I call them] were tweeting and retweeting and asking for help from people they don’t even know.”

Savaşeri has an aunt and uncle who live in Gaziantep, one of the cities hit by the earthquake. They made it out of their building alive and their building is still standing, but not safe to live in. So they’re staying at Savaşeri’s home for now.

“Last night, we were speaking and my uncle said, ’People will forget about this in one month. No one will remember it,' " she said. "Because people's attention are very short now.”

Savaşeri said she has a message to the international community — “Please don’t forget.”

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Got a tip? Email Stella M. Chávez at schavez@kera.org. You can follow Stella on Twitter @stellamchavez.
Copyright 2023 KERA. To see more, visit KERA.

Stella Chávez is KERA’s education reporter/blogger. Her journalism roots run deep: She spent a decade and a half in newspapers – including seven years at The Dallas Morning News, where she covered education and won the Livingston Award for National Reporting, which is given annually to the best journalists across the country under age 35. The award-winning entry was  “Yolanda’s Crossing,” a seven-part DMN series she co-wrote that reconstructs the 5,000-mile journey of a young Mexican sexual-abuse victim from a small Oaxacan village to Dallas. For the last two years, she worked for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, where she was part of the agency’s outreach efforts on the Affordable Care Act and ran the regional office’s social media efforts.