New Jersey’s Turkish news outlets become a lifeline after the devastating earthquake
Editor’s Note: This article was first published in The Star-Ledger on Feb. 14, 2023.
Last Sunday, when a powerful, deadly earthquake struck southern Turkey before dawn local time, Orhan Akkurt was reading a book to his 9-year-old daughter at bedtime in Elwood, New Jersey, some 5,500 miles away from the epicenter of the 7.8-magnitude quake that has so far killed more than 37,000 people in Turkey and Syria.
Suddenly, he got a phone call from a Turkish friend, who is also living in New Jersey, informing him about the earthquake. At that time he and his friend didn’t know how bad the situation was. Then, text messages on Akkurt’s phone started pouring in.
Frantic, he told his wife and immediately called their relatives in Turkey. Akkurt’s phone call woke up his parents, who live in the city of Mardin — southeast of Turkey — and broke the news. But Akkurt’s wife could not immediately reach her family in Izmir, the third most populous city in Turkey, located on the Aegean coast.
An hour later, with no full information about the devastation of the earthquake, he went online and visited the site of Zaman Amerika, a digital publication that serves Turkish Americans in the New Jersey and New York area.
There, browsing through live video footage and photographs, he learned how the quake flattened Turkish cities and saw people fleeing their homes in the cold, many were scampering barefoot and seeking refuge behind cars when the earth began trembling under their feet.
“Even major American television stations didn’t have a lot of information, especially a few hours right after the quake,” said Akkurt, a photojournalist working as a stringer for the Associated Press. “Like many Turkish immigrants here, we had to rely largely on social media and information posted in local Turkish ethnic news outlets.”
Since the quake occurred last week, with hundreds of strong aftershocks, Zaman Amerika and other Turkish publications based in New Jersey and New York have been the lifeline for Turkish American families, using these news outlets as platforms to connect with their loved ones, find ways to donate and offer assistance and get first-hand information.
Both Akkurt and his wife’s immediate family and relatives in Turkey are safe, he said. But they have friends from the local mosque and community center that they go to for prayer meetings whose loved ones perished or are still missing.
“There are victims, while buried in the rubble, asking for help on social media. They used their cell phones to post their messages and alert authorities to locate them,” Akkurt said. “This is the kind of reporting that we got from these local ethnic news (sites) — and something that has been underreported.”
Zaman Amerika used to distribute print copies across New Jersey. But in 2016, its mother company, Today’s Zaman, was shut down by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, five days after the military coup attempt in Turkey.
Since then, Zaman Amerika ceased printing, says Akkurt, and most journalists working for its digital edition are unpaid volunteers.
According to the latest U.S. census data, New Jersey and New York have the nation’s largest Turkish population. The Peace Island Institute, a nonprofit serving Turkish Americans, says there are about 100,000 Turks in the area.
Akkurt, however, says that the number could be much higher since many — particularly undocumented individuals — in the community don’t participate in the national decennial count.
In Paterson and Clifton, New Jersey alone, where there are at least 200 Turkish restaurants and grocery stores. The Turkish Cultural Center New Jersey says during a recent census event that the Turkish population in the area has tripled over the last five years.
Selcuk Acar, U.S. bureau editor of the Turkish Journal, said he was attending a pre-Fashion Week event in New York City on the night that he learned about the massive earthquake in Turkey and Syria.
“I had to leave the event, and I started posting stories from the affected areas in Turkey,” said Acar, who is originally from the Istanbul area. “That’s how Turkish Americans got their first-hand information, especially when major U.S. publications have not yet received their news feeds.”
While his family and relatives are safe in Turkey, he added, it is difficult for him to report and post stories when he has friends and their loved ones severely impacted by the earthquake.
With Turkish Americans and the world closely monitoring the news about the impact of the earthquake, Acar believes that the Turkish press in New Jersey-New York plays a critical role as a conduit between Turkish Americans and their family and relatives in Turkey.
“These are the prime news outlets that they’d go to for direct interaction with the community. Not only that they report in the same language and culture that they know,” Acar said, “they also report what they need to know.”
With support from private instant messaging platforms, such as WhatsApp, Akkurt expressed his faith in the ethnic press.
“In these difficult times, the last thing that we want to have is misinformation. Turkish Americans need reliable and timely news and information in order to carry out rescue operations and help families of victims — and these Turkish ethnic news outlets deliver what they have to do to serve the Turkish American community,” he said.
Anthony “Oni” Advincula is the ethnic and community media coordinator at the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University. Contact him at email@example.com.
About the Center for Cooperative Media: The Center is a grant-funded program of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. Its mission is to grow and strengthen local journalism, and in doing so serve New Jersey residents. The Center is supported with funding from Montclair State University, John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, Democracy Fund, the New Jersey Local News Lab (a partnership of the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, Democracy Fund, and Community Foundation of New Jersey), and the Abrams Foundation. For more information, visit centerforcooperativemedia.org.