A woman holds a small child crying for her father in Nurdagi, Turkey, on Feb. 7, 2023.

A woman holds a small child crying for her father in Nurdagi, Turkey, on Feb. 7, 2023. (Alice Martins for The Washington Post )

LONG BEACH, Calif. - One week ago, Bakkal's drivers were working their usual routes, crisscrossing the sprawling Los Angeles metro area to deliver customers groceries fresh from the region's many international markets.

But on Sunday, everything changed. More than 7,000 miles east, a series of devastating earthquakes rocked Syria and Turkey, where the founders of Bakkal, which they describe as "Instacart for ethnic food," grew up. Suddenly, they feared for their families and could not reach their friends. Even though they were a world away, they decided to help the best way they knew how.

Within a day, they had flipped their business model on its head - instead of delivering pomegranate juice and halal meat, they were picking up diapers, winter jackets and medicine from hundreds of their app's users, the wider Turkish diaspora and other Angelenos just looking for ways to help after one of the most catastrophic disasters in recent memory.

"Money will help to a point, but if we can get basic needs, and get them there as quickly as possible, it can help save lives," said Murat Karslioglu, the company's chief executive. "And you can't buy that with any amount of money."

Bakkal's effort, carried out by a fleet of drivers steering Mercedes vans across L.A. and the Bay Area, is one of countless humanitarian drives the Turkish and Syrian communities are spearheading across the country as they embark on the challenging effort to get critical supplies to loved ones back home.

In Southern California, a culturally and ethnically diverse region home to thousands of Turkish and Syrian Americans, mosques held fundraisers during Friday prayers. In Santa Barbara, one organization sent a commercial charter plane to Syria packed with medical supplies. In Texas, Turkish business owners donated their proceeds and volunteers donated their time. New York City set up an online aid portal, and D.C. residents have brought so many boxes of provisions to the Turkish Embassy that the piles have spilled into the building's driveway.

Conditions on the ground in Turkey and Syria have complicated this nationwide mobilization. To reach their destinations, the boxes of donations must clear significant political and logistical hurdles, with so much infrastructure reduced to rubble and Syria still suffering the effects of its 12-year civil war. The conflict there has displaced millions, restricted movement and brought a battery of international sanctions against the Syrian government.

Turkey, with its established economy and ties to the European Union, is more stable, but still challenged. Some Turks living in the United States said they don't trust their home country's nationalist government, accusing officials of corruption and criticizing them for failing to enforce building codes. Authorities in Turkey and Syria say the death toll has surpassed 21,000, making it the deadliest such disaster in more than a decade.

For those in the Turkish and Syrian diaspora, the quest to help is filled with anguish.

"All of a sudden, I have this feeling that someone has filled my brain with cotton, and nothing is moving inside," said Ahmet Altug, one of the co-founders of Bakkal, describing the sudden waves of sadness that come as he tries to get donations on the ground. "I wouldn't say daydreaming - more like a day nightmare."

Socks, blankets and antibiotics

International aid groups flooded into the stricken region this week. The Red Cross and Red Crescent said they sent more than 15,000 responders to the hardest hit areas, where teams must navigate dangerous road conditions and bad weather.

Some groups like Santa Barbara-based Direct Relief have managed to reach war-torn Syria by sending charter plans packed with medical supplies using preexisting humanitarian supply chain networks. World Central Kitchen, a D.C.-based nonprofit, began its response in the shattered Turkish cities of Adana and Iskenderun, both near the epicenter, delivering more than a thousand sandwiches and water, the group said.

"The scale of the destruction is difficult to understand," said chef José Andrés, the group's founder.

But much of the grass roots efforts in the U.S. are being driven by Turkish and Syrian communities who still maintain close ties to their homeland.

Rescuers search through the rubble in Nurdagi, Turkey, on Feb. 7, 2023.

Rescuers search through the rubble in Nurdagi, Turkey, on Feb. 7, 2023. (Alice Martins for The Washington Post)

Pallets of boxes brimming with blankets, sleeping bags and tents left U.S. airports late Tuesday, and Turkish Embassy officials said they have received more than 100 tons of goods. The nightly flights will probably continue through the weekend, they said.

All those sweaters, socks and bottles of baby formula can be traced back to the many donation drives like the one organized by Murat Tas and Esra Colvard of the Turkish American Association of San Antonio, one of many that serves thousands of Turkish Americans across Texas. They thought it would be a small event, but after word got out, the pair had to scramble to find an 18-wheeler big enough to haul all the boxes to the Turkish consulate in Houston.

"Turks are used to earthquakes, but nothing this bad," said Colvard, whose family in Adana survived the temblor and is still experiencing aftershocks.

Car after car pulled into the shopping center parking lot in north San Antonio, where volunteers from the city's Turkish community sorted diapers, sanitary supplies and children's clothing into plastic bags, scrawling their sizes on the outside. Children worked alongside their parents, folding and labeling, while organizers took a careful inventory.

Among them was Gulhan Ozdemir, 50, who learned hours earlier that her cousin and his wife had been killed. The couple's children - one of whom lost an arm - were pulled from the rubble and are recovering in makeshift hospitals in the city of Malatya.

"I'm not good," said Ozdemir, who brought blankets to the cornucopia of donated goods. "But I'm just hoping these things will help keep people safe and save some lives. My heart is with my people and with my country."

Organizers were expecting to stay there through the evening, collecting the things they hope will ease the suffering of families who lost everything.

"I know it's not enough," said Esra Guler, 40, looking around. "But we are still trying."

In Dallas, businessman Mehmet Shon Celik turned his social media accounts into fundraising platforms, pleading for help for his hometown of Adiyaman, where more than 60 percent of the city was leveled. His father and siblings are now living in their cars in the high-altitude city where temperatures regularly drop below freezing.

Morgues there are overwhelmed and have resorted to piling bodies inside homes. People have told Celik they aren't getting enough help.

"If we don't take action or do something, we are going to have more people dying," Celik said, citing Turkey's bureaucracy as one obstacle to getting aid to the affected.

He said he is sending a portion of his sales from his Turkish restaurant in Plano directly to a local official he trusts to ensure it gets to those who need it most.

"The [government] is doing the best they can, but they are also slowing it down," he said.

'I feel like a robot'

Back in California, the team at Bakkal is acutely aware of the long road that lies ahead. Some of the company's workers are still praying they hear back from relatives who live in the earthquake zone. And in the coming months, the need to house hundreds of thousands of displaced people left in the cold will bring yet another challenge.

Sedat Deniz loads donations into his company’s truck in Los Angeles on Feb. 9, 2023.

Sedat Deniz loads donations into his company’s truck in Los Angeles on Feb. 9, 2023. (Lauren Justice for The Washington Post)

Altug said he has spent the last several days working almost nonstop, coordinating the logistics for donation drop-offs and pickups, channeling his grief into productivity.

"I feel like a robot," he said outside the company's office in Los Angeles's South Bay. "I just feel like I've got to do this and I've got to do this in the best and most efficient way.

The company has already collected three 40-foot shipping containers-worth of relief supplies gathered from daily collection trips. Those goods are then transported to Turkish consulates and flown to the ruined region on Turkish Airlines planes.

Some who contributed recalled the terrible 1999 earthquake that struck the northwest corner of Turkey, killing more than 17,000 people. At the time, Karslioglu, one of the company's founders, was attending university in Sakarya, one of the worst-hit cities, and he spent days searching for survivors in the wreckage. Those painful memories resurfaced this week and pushed him and his team, many of whom have friends or family who were impacted, to act.

More than 300 people have asked the two-year-old company to pick up their donations, leaving workers little time to dwell. On Thursday, one of Bakkal's drivers, Sedat Deniz, mapped out a 130-mile seven-stop route across the Southland.

He had recently heard back from a close friend in Turkey who had gone dark for several days. Relieved, Deniz set out in a white van decorated with the blue and gold scarf of an Istanbul soccer team, Fenerbahce.

The day was sweltering and the van's air conditioning spotty, but Deniz methodically worked through his list. Some donors spoke to him in Turkish, others - like Monica Villarreal in Hacienda Heights - had no personal connection to the place but were moved by images of the suffering.

"I'm Mexican, but we're all people," said Villarreal, who coordinated a group of friends that gathered a pile of sleeping bags, jackets and medication. "To lose everything - heartbreaking, that's the only word to come to mind when I see those videos. They kept me up at night."

At a packaging business near Irvine, a regional center for Turkish American life, workers packed 40 boxes of donations from around Orange County.

"We cannot be there, so at least we can help this way," said Elif Bulut, who is also president of the Orange County Turkish School. She said she still has several friends who are missing. "It's just miserable."

After about four hours, Deniz's van was full, and he drove his haul to a warehouse in Long Beach that serves as a donation coordination hub. A swarm of volunteers greeted him. They moved quickly - unloading, sorting, tallying, repacking, calling across the room in Turkish.

Before long, his van was empty again, ready for another day of work.

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