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Turkish Immigrants Worry Over Quake

August 18, 1999

NEW YORK (AP) _ Staff at the Hemsin Bakery & Restaurant served Turkish yogurt drinks and spicy pizzas as usual Tuesday, but their thoughts were half a world away.

The young waiters and waitresses at the shop in Queens _ like many Turkish immigrants across the country _ were worried about family and friends back home, where thousands were killed and injured in one of the most powerful earthquakes of the century.

``At least I want to hear their voice, I want to find out they are all right,″ said Hayrettin Celik, 23, who spent hours trying to call his mother and two sisters in Istanbul. ``If I can’t contact them, I plan to go to Istanbul.″

Far from home and in some cases unable to reach relatives because the earthquake damaged phone lines, Turkish immigrants looked to the Internet for information and help.

Those lucky enough to contact family members in Turkey got a sense of the terror and devastation. They heard of bodies crushed by buildings, neighborhoods flattened and a terrifying night spent in the street for fear of aftershocks.

``They have to stay outside,″ said Boulant Bozdemir, who owns a hair salon in the Georgetown section of Washington, D.C., and heard from his family in Istanbul seven hours after the quake. ``The government told them there might be another one.″

Mehmet Saracoglu, 26, a student who runs a Turkish grocery store in Queens, reached his family early Tuesday, after six hours of dialing, and spoke to them for just three minutes before being cut off. They had been vacationing in Izmit, which was hit hard by the quake.

``I heard my mother’s voice _ she couldn’t talk to me, she was crying and yelling,″ he said. ``When I heard my father, his voice sounded like someone else’s voice. ... He was a little crying, a little thanking to God. He couldn’t talk to me.″

Mehmet Yildirim, president of the Turkish American Cultural Association of Georgia, had 10 people at his house in Sandy Springs, outside Atlanta, to watch satellite TV reports from Turkey.

``We’ve got a Georgia Tech student staying at our house who’s been up 24 hours, because he didn’t know what happened to his family,″ Yildirim said. ``They were able to pull his mother out of the rubble, and he was relieved and he finally went to sleep after getting the phone call. Another friend has not heard anything.″

Celik, the Queens waiter, said that even if he learns his family has survived, he’ll still be heartbroken over the damage to Istanbul, which is rich with early Christian and Ottoman history and straddles the borders of Asia and Europe.

``Nowhere is like that,″ he said. ``It’s the most beautiful city in the world for me.″