'I cried every night': Dubai-based Indian volunteer tells heart-breaking stories of Turkey, Syria quake victims

After travelling to quake-hit areas, watching first-hand the sufferings of women and children, Saima's perspective towards life altered


Nandini Sircar

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Saima Khan volunteering in Turkey, Photos: Supplied
Saima Khan volunteering in Turkey, Photos: Supplied

Published: Fri 17 Mar 2023, 2:51 PM

Last updated: Fri 17 Mar 2023, 11:19 PM

Witnessing tragedy and extending her helping hand to people in need is not new for 24-year-old Saima Khan, but when she saw the plight of Turkey's earthquake victims, she cried every night.

Saima has been volunteering as a humanitarian since she was 13, but her first-hand experience of the devastation in Turkey has left her overwhelmed with grief.

Born and brought up in the UAE, she went to Our Own English High School in Dubai and completed her bachelor's degree in business administration. But all along knew this wasn't her inner calling; her ikigai (reason for living) rested somewhere else.

After travelling to quake-hit Haiti and Turkey with her MATW colleagues (an Australian registered charity), watching first-hand the sufferings of women and children, Saima's perspective towards life altered.

Children cling to hope

"When I was there, I would go home and cry every night. I didn't want to cry in front of those people as I was there to give them hope. I hugged so many children, and they wouldn't let go of me as if they were holding onto their mother. They survived the earthquake only to realise their parents weren't there; they didn't survive."

While every standing person there had a backstory, she could only narrate a few for this interview.

"I tried to reach out to as many women as I could. I realised that many organisations were sending men, and they could not understand that girls and mothers who survived and are living in relief tents are still experiencing menstrual cycles and need sanitary supplies. So many organisations overlooked this because hardly any women were on the team," says the Indian expat.

Narrating the story of a woman, who lost her six children and husband, Saiman said, "This woman's will to live to help others was unfaltering, and I was so moved by it.

"She had six children, out of which she had lost five at the time of the initial earthquake along with her husband. One child survived and was pulled out of the rubble, but because of a lack of proper oxygen supply and the hard-hitting winter, he eventually succumbed to his injuries.

"With tears in her eyes, she stood before me and said, 'God could have taken me with the rest of my family, but he didn't. So, I understand that I am supposed to help others.' She had lost everything, but she came forward and asked how she could help others. That made me realise that this incident has made these women extremely strong. I have a lot of respect for these women after what they have been through," says the dual recipient of the Princess Diana Award and Queen Elizabeth Young Leader Award.

Syrians left homeless again

Saima said some families fled the civil war in Syria, hoping for a fresh start here, and took refuge in Turkey. But their new homes were now in ruins, with more than half of its buildings damaged.

"Another incident that shook me was a woman who fled Syria to settle in Turkey for a better quality of life. She said that for 13 years, she had been fighting for a house and finally got one this year. Within a few months, it was destroyed, and she lost everything, including her family. When we assisted her with a tent, she was so happy," adds the Dubai resident, who is experienced in crisis management and orphan care, among other initiatives.

The 'great equaliser'

Saima, who has been featured in Forbes W- Power under 30 said with umpteen heart-wrenching stories coming out from this earthquake, this disaster has also been a "great equaliser";.

"I met a guy who was a renowned businessman in Turkey and is now living in a relief camp. He pointed to the wreckage and told me that before the earthquake, there stood three buildings that belonged to him. He had two Mercedes (car) parked behind his tent."

She was recently felicitated by the Indian government for her exemplary work in the quake-affected areas and said, "My perspective towards life has changed. I am more grateful, a little less complaining, valuing my relationships more now, and understanding how short our time in this world is."


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