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Fredericton man loses family members in Turkey earthquake, others living in car

FREDERICTON — Ahmed Hallaq's mother was attending to her morning prayers in the family's apartment in central Turkey last week when she saw the ceiling lamps start to sway.
Ahmed Hallaq is seen in Kayseri, central Turkey, on Feb. 6, 2023. He was in Turkey when the earthquake hit. His family is now living in a car because their apartment complex has deep cracks and is uninhabitable. He fled Syria for Turkey and came to Canada in January 2016. His family is still in Turkey. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Ahmed Hallaq *MANDATORY CREDIT*

FREDERICTON — Ahmed Hallaq's mother was attending to her morning prayers in the family's apartment in central Turkey last week when she saw the ceiling lamps start to sway.

She closed her eyes and went back to her prayers, Hallaq said, which is when she felt the ground beneath her sway and heard a hissing noise. 

She snapped her eyes open and shouted out to her children: "Zalzala!" — earthquake in Arabic.

"We are used to hearing bombs fall and feeling the ground under us shake," said Hallaq, who fled the Syrian war in 2012 and now lives in Fredericton. "But this was different."

Hallaq was visiting his family in the Turkish city of Kayseri when the earthquake hit on Feb. 6. The 7.8-magnitude quake and powerful aftershocks affected 10 provinces in Turkey that are home to some 13.5 million people, as well as a large area in northwest Syria that is home to millions.

The death toll, which has eclipsed 35,500 — nearly 32,000 of those in Turkey — includes his family. Hallaq lost his 13-year-old cousin and aunt in the earthquake, he said in an interview Tuesday. 

"They were sleeping when the apartment came crashing down," he said in Arabic and English with help from his friend, Mohammad Al Khateeb, who translated for him. Al Khateeb, who is from Syria, came to Canada in January 2016.

"They were taken to hospital," Hallaq said. "They died in the hospital."

He rubbed his face. One of his other aunts, he said, might not make it. "She is very badly injured."

Hallaq, along with his wife and two children, moved in 2016 from Turkey to Fredericton, where he owns a downtown tailoring business. He returned to Turkey last month to check out designs and materials so he could expand his business, and to see his mother, whom he had last seen about seven years ago. 

On that fateful Monday, hours after the first quake, a second one hit — around 2:30 p.m.

"This one was much stronger," Hallaq said, chewing his fingernails. "That second hit was really, really bad. The whole family had to leave the apartment and sit in the street."

His family have been living in a car since the earthquake hit, Hallaq said.

Hallaq unlocked his phone and showed pictures of him with his family in a park – with snow on the ground – near his apartments in Turkey, where he spent his days along with them after the earthquake. Hallaq has returned to Fredericton, while his 14 family members are spending their day in that park or in their car. They found a room where they can spend nights — at least in the short term.

Another picture shows his cement, grey-and-white apartment complex with a deep crack running up its spine, seemingly splitting the building into two.

"There's my apartment," he said, pointing at the picture. 

He described the city as a pile of rubble, which he said brought back memories of areas flattened by bombs and explosions in war-torn Syria.

Hallaq was joined in his shop by his co-worker, Abdulkadir Bashlamuni, who came to Canada from Aleppo, Syria, about two years ago. Bashlamuni said his four sisters and their families are out on the streets, living in a car after deep cracks formed in their apartment building.

"They are safe from the earthquake," Bashlamuni said. "But how safe are they in Syria?"

He worries about them but said he feels helpless.

Hallaq echoed those feelings.

"When my mother asks me what I ate, I don't tell her," Hallaq said. "Because she doesn't even have anything to eat. Some days she just gets one meal — what relief agencies give. A survivor package to keep them alive."

Money is running out and relief is in short supply, he said. 

Hallaq said he is hoping the Canadian government allows his family to move to Canada. "We moved from Syria to Turkey to escape the war. We invested everything we have and now it's all gone," he said.

"Now, they sleep in a room at night that they found. They are waiting for something, but they have no idea how long to wait and how many things to wait for. It's really hard to think sometimes. You know what I mean?" 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 15, 2023.

Hina Alam, The Canadian Press

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