NYU chaplain travels to Turkey to support relief efforts

Following devastating earthquakes in Turkey and Syria, NYU chaplain Khalid Latif visited Turkey to provide humanitarian assistance.


Yezen Saadah

(Illustration by Yezen Saadah)

Veronica Shirokova, Contributing Writer

When imam and NYU chaplain Khalid Latif arrived at Gaziantep, a Turkish city affected by recent earthquakes, he said it was like walking through a warzone. He found residents in a state of shock and powerlessness. Children who grew up running from the civil war in Syria casually asked Latif if his house had also fallen down. One Turkish man lost 10 of his family members. Another was living in what Latif called a “box” outside the remains of his home with nine relatives. His son is disabled and uses a wheelchair, so the family was bound to that enclosed space.

“Victims are now in the cold and scared out of their minds,” Latif said. “People have lost all their belongings. They are still waiting to hear from loved ones. They said it was like the sound of rocks being squeezed together. It terrifies them.”

Latif, an NYU alum, traveled to Turkey on Feb. 13 to deliver aid and speak to victims with Islamic Relief USA, a non-profit humanitarian agency. He landed in Istanbul just one week after the earthquakes began.

Also the executive director of the Islamic Center at NYU, Latif said his ongoing communication with Turkish and Syrian students, alumni and faculty strengthened his connection to those suffering from the disaster.

“We have a pretty large community at the Islamic Center,” Latif said. “The connection to individuals who lost loved ones was very personal as well. I wanted to do something that would help their healing.”

The Turkey and Syria earthquakes, which occurred on Feb. 6 with magnitudes of 7.7 and 7.6 respectively, have taken the lives of over 47,000 people. Another 6.3 magnitude earthquake would hit southern Turkey near the Syrian border two weeks later, on Feb. 20, causing further damage to buildings and worsening the humanitarian situation.

When Latif arrived, aftershocks continued to rumble through Turkey and Syria and people were so traumatized that they ran out of their homes at the slightest movement. He spent the next five days traveling around the city raising money through IRUSA and talking to victims.

Latif said local residents were the most dedicated contributors to humanitarian aid. He said he saw great beauty in their ability to lose everything and still muster up the strength to help those around them, digging people out of the rubble and giving out supplies. He noted that he was unable to enter Syria, which has reportedly seen an increase in refugees after the quakes.

“Through this particular trip, we were just on the Turkey side,” Latif said. “But in Turkey, you have a huge number of Syrian refugees, Palestinian refugees, Uyghur refugees, and the reality is on both sides of the earthquake. Turkey’s government has the kind of infrastructure and capacity to provide its own emergency relief work in the northern part of Syria.”

Latif previously served as chaplain for the New York City Police Department, and works to foster inter-faith understanding worldwide. He was also the subject of the 2014 documentary “Of Many,” produced by Chelsea Clinton and directed by Linda Mills, who was recently selected as NYU’s next president.

Latif wished the rest of the world would show the same compassion. He thought that European and U.S. media did not thoroughly cover the earthquakes, and that there are still a lot of people who remain unaware of the full extent of the tragedy. He urged individuals worldwide to continue spreading information and donating money and supplies, adding that both Turkey and Syria will require international support to recover from the disaster.

“It makes a big difference,” Latif said, “when you have somebody that comes out of their way to let you know that they’re thinking of you.”

Contact Veronica Shirokova at [email protected]