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Behind the Headlines: Israel, Jewish Groups Help Prepare Turkey’s Homeless for Coming Winter

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A middle-aged man climbed up to the cabin of a crane and drew the operator’s attention to a small suitcase on top of a pile of rubble left by this month’s earthquake.

“Can you get it for me?” he pleaded, “Please, it’s very important.”

The huge arm of the crane pulled it out of the ruins with perfect precision. The man, Aydin Yilmaz, in his early 50s, opened the suitcase, pulled out a photo album, pointed at the pictures, and said, “That’s my family. They are all there, underneath.”

He pointed quietly at the huge pile of rubble that had buried his wife and two children.

Stories like Yilmaz’s are commonplace in Adapazari, a town east of Istanbul and one of the six areas hardest hit by the earthquake that killed an estimated 14,000 people.

Now, with winter approaching, the focus is on making sure that international support, including aid from Israel and Jewish communities worldwide, reaches the estimated 600,000 people left homeless.

The Israel Defense Force has deployed a field hospital at the entrance to Adapazari. A number of tents supply the local population with advanced medical equipment, including X-ray facilities, laboratories, children’s and orthopedic wards. Israeli surgeons conducted emergency operations — and one baby delivery — in the rooms of an adjacent government office.

In addition, Israel has sent Turkey some 1,000 tons of agricultural products, frozen vegetables, water, milk, and new and used clothing, that had been collected in Israel.

The Israeli relief delegation numbered some 500 rescuers, medical staff and other experts, including the IDF’s elite rescue unit, which had gained experience in rescue operations in Lebanon and places of natural disaster in many parts of the world.

For the thousands of people living in makeshift tents with no running water, electricity or sewage facilities, it is now a race against the coming winter. Much depends on the readiness of other countries to help — and on Turkey’s ability to make optimal usage of that help.

But if a recent incident is any indication, that ability seems to be questionable at best. A load of humanitarian aid reached Adapazari from Israel through the voluntary organization Latet.

The supply, tons of frozen vegetables, clothes, blankets and diapers, was stored in the warehouse of the Red Crescent. Volunteers went with the first truck to a nearby village, which, according to Red Crescent activists needed the supply badly. The truck, loaded with Israeli donations, reached the village of Karpurcek Yokselko — only to find out that the village had escaped the earthquake unharmed.

But the local villagers, needy and poor regardless of the quake, surrounded the truck, and insisted on getting their share of the supply.

“Someone misdirected us,” said volunteer leader Ziva Ohayon. “But we will go back to the warehouse and make sure that this time we go to the people who really need it.”

There were plenty of them. In fact, some were found right next to the warehouse, in the heart of Adapazari.

The incident indicates the complexity of the task at hand. It is not enough to give. Someone needs to be on site to make sure that the donations reach the right people.

Indeed, Dr. Rick Hodes, an emergency doctor with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, recently left his mission in Albania to visit the IDF hospital last weekend and assess where the JDC could contribute medical aid.

The JDC has organized 40 Jewish American groups to raise funds for the earthquake victims.

“We shall do our work in cooperation with the Jewish community in Turkey,” Ami Bergman, JDC’s representative in Turkey, told JTA. The idea is to take advantage of the natural links between the Jewish community and the Turkish authorities, and at the same time use relief efforts in the United States to foster those relations even more.

The JDC intends to focus on long-term relief works in Turkey, particularly in the spheres of housing, medical treatment and education. “We plan a long-term activity, not for the sake of PR, but so that someone takes care of the population for a long time,” Bergman said.

Turkish officials acknowledged the efforts of both the worldwide Jewish community and, in particular, the state of Israel.

“We deeply appreciate the contribution of the people of Israel,” Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit told JTA. “The Israeli contribution was remarkable compared to donations by other countries.”

Even Nevzat Yalcintas, one of the leaders of the radical Muslim Fazilet Party, went out of his way to praise Israel’s contribution. Fazilet is the present version of the former Welfare Party, which has generally opposed the increasingly warm relations between Israel and Turkey.

Israel is now considering sending to Turkey some 500 mobile homes to ease the problem of the homeless.

But Israeli aid is just a drop in the sea. Turkey, it is believed, will need at least $10 billion to get back on track.

Most residents of Adapazari have nowhere to go. Their homes were either destroyed, or unsafe to live in.

“This is my home,” Mehmet Ismayil pointed at the small house, next to his tent, “But I am afraid to return to it.”

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