Turkey Syria Refugee
A picture of Mahmoud with Turkish woman he rescued Image Credit: Andalou

Istanbul: The building buckled after a powerful earthquake struck central Turkey last week, just one among dozens of structures that tremor brought down.

Residents, paralyzed by shock, stood around the rubble as their trapped neighbors screamed for help, in a neighborhood that had gone dark after the electric lines were cut and frigid as the temperature dropped.

But Mahmoud Othman, 22, a Syrian refugee, did not hesitate, plunging into the debris to save a couple who were stuck under concrete blocks, doors and wooden beams, he said in an interview.

His effort jolted other residents into action. The man and the woman were freed.

Within a day, Othman was hailed as a hero in the tragic aftermath of the earthquake, a 6.8-magnitude temblor that killed at least 41 people and injured hundreds more in and around Elazig province.

And as his bravery was celebrated - by the couple he had saved, in the news media and by Turkish officials - Othman earned a moment of relief for his fellow Syrian refugees, who have become far more accustomed to being vilified in Turkey than cheered.

“You know how we throw stones at Syrians,” Durdane Aydn, the woman Othman rescued, said in an interview from her hospital bed that was widely shared on social media.

“That kid used his nails to dig and dig. He got me out of there. I won’t ever forget that kid. The first thing I’ll do when I get out of here is find him.”

Turkey’s hosting of millions of Syrian war refugees has prompted a backlash from citizens, who have blamed the migrants for the worsening economy and other alleged ills.

Turks turn against refugees

The government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, reacting to the anger, has said millions of Syrians will have to return to their homeland, in a plan that has alarmed the refugees and their advocates.

Thousands of Syrians - fearing attacks by mobs or arrest by authorities - have fled toward Europe, choosing the risky Mediterranean crossing to Greece over an uncertain future in Turkey. Many who remained have stayed in the shadows, traveling from town to town with smugglers to avoid government checkpoints.

Then suddenly - jarringly - a Syrian refugee was being feted. “Good on you, Syrian Mahmoud,” read a headline in Hurriyet, a daily newspaper.

Othman’s path to Turkey started eight years ago, when he and his family were displaced from their village in Syria’s Hama province and forced to flee farther north to Idlib province.

He worked there as a mechanic and a car washer and came to Turkey on his own, “mainly seeking education,” he said in a telephone interview.

He graduated high school and a few months ago was accepted to a university in Elazig, where he intended to study mechanical engineering.

The journey - “from my arrival to Turkey to being admitted at university was hard, lots of paperwork, interviews and study. But I insisted on pursuing my education,” he said.

Earthquake strikes

When the earthquake struck, he was at the gym, he said. He started to walk home but changed his route “when I heard people screaming, asking for help.”

When he reached the fallen building, he used the flashlight from his phone to comb through the detritus. Then he heard a voice beneath him.

A man was stuck under pieces of wood. A woman was also trapped, with debris - a television, a ladder - strewn around her. He freed the man and the woman, too, as she was fainting. “Someone got first-aid oxygen and started using it on me and on the woman,” he said.

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A collapsed building in Elazig, Turkey. Image Credit: Reuters

Sometime during his rescue effort, his phone was stolen, so for 24 hours, he avoided the news. When he was back online, “everyone was talking about the incident,” he said.

It stood out, among a flood of other grim developments. There were hundreds of aftershocks, as rescuers tried desperately to reach buried civilians. The tremor revived questions in an earthquake-prone Turkey about whether the government had adequately enforced building codes and was prepared for a bigger and deadlier quake.

Dozens of people who posted such concerns on social media were summoned for questioning by the authorities. Political arguments broke out as well, after the authorities refused to accept an aid shipment sent to the earthquake zone by a pro-Kurdish opposition political party.

Othman was reunited with Aydin and her husband, Zulkuf Aydin, in an encounter caught on video that also went viral.

Then, earlier this week, Turkey’s interior minister announced that Othman would be given Turkish citizenship, along with his family. He had not asked for citizenship, he said. “I just asked to be reunited with my family, for them to be brought over from Idlib.”

“I feel like I’m in a dream,” he said. “I keep wondering, have I died in the earthquake and this is just an illusion?”