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Colombia to Türkiye: A chef’s journey to feed earthquake survivors

Less than a week after two earthquakes devastated southern Türkiye, Ivan Francisco Escobar made a nearly three-hour road journey from Adana through one of the worst-hit regions.

The 43-year-old chef had travelled non-stop from his home in the bustling Colombian city of Barranquilla – on February 10, he flew from his home in Colombia to Istanbul and then took a connecting flight to Adana before the road trip to his destination, Antakya in the Hatay province.

Since then, Escobar has been preparing 25,000 meals daily for the earthquake survivors in Antakya, one of the worst-hit areas in the 7.7 and 7.6 earthquakes that killed more than 50,000 people in Türkiye and Syria and left millions homeless.

Escobar is a member of the World Central Kitchen, a US-based non-profit which provides food in natural disasters, made-made crises and humanitarian emergencies. It was one of the first humanitarian aid teams to arrive in Türkiye following the worst natural disaster in recent history.

Escobar says the survivors need every possible help to overcome this tragedy.  

“There is just one thing that you can do, and that is, fill yourself with strength and bravery for these people. They need it all,” he tells TRT World over the phone during a break from his routine.  

“And there’s no time to complain, to whine. There is no time to be weak, only time to be strong and do what you need to do to feed as many people as possible. I’ve reached my limit of 25,000 meals a day and I’m very proud of that,” he adds.

Escobar has a team of six Turkish chefs and volunteers helping him.

A rude shock

On the day the earthquakes struck Türkiye, Escobar returned home from work late in the night. And only when he scrolled through his social media timelines, he saw the heart-breaking images caused by the natural disaster on his mobile handset.

In an instant, he knew what he had to do.

“As soon as I saw these images, the next thing I did was contact my superiors (in WCK) and said, ‘please send me to Türkiye immediately’,” he recalls. “I was one of the first to say that I was ready to go.”

Three days later, the culinary expert with 22 years of experience was on a plane to Türkiye, following the path of World Central Kitchen founder Jose Andres of Spain, who led the NGO’s first team to the disaster zone.

“…The drive is something I will never forget…images of buildings on the ground,” Escobar says, recalling sights of  buildings levelled to the ground “through all the region”.

“From Adana to Antakya, you can start seeing the damage. But when you get close to Antakya, it’s devastation, complete devastation.”

Escobar – who has worked in other disaster-hit areas – says he has seen the devastating impact of hurricanes, storms and flooding. “But the level of destruction that I am experiencing in Antakya, I’ve never seen,” he says, adding that the area has been totally destroyed “where all the buildings are in a mountain of rubble”.

“It’s very difficult. People have lost family members, businesses – you’re feeding people with extremely low morale.  That’s why it is important to do everything possible to increase that morale.”

Plate of hope

Escobar, whose previous deployment was in the Dominican Republic after a hurricane in September 2022, says that people working in disaster zones face a number of challenges, especially when a place experiences countless aftershocks, including tremors of large magnitudes.

He describes the job as “very difficult because we are still experiencing earthquakes. I’m working while it (the earth) shakes.”

“When it shakes and everything moves like this it is difficult.  I’m in a field kitchen,” says Escobar, who put together the kitchen on the patio of a destroyed building.

His NGO has given him the financial backing for everything he needs – from giant cooking pots and pans to workstations and tents to store his groceries.

Food producers and restaurants are also backing Escobar with supplies, usually taking two days to deliver the items requested by his team.

He says the meals they produce are transported in trucks to 18 different distribution points within an hour’s drive from the camp, ensuring the meals remain warm. The meals are served to both survivors and various teams engaged in vital work in the devastated region.

A taste of Türkiye

Escobar describes the meals his team produces as “authentic” and “homemade”, an extension of the NGO founder Andres’ philosophy that “food relief is not just a meal that keeps hunger away. It’s a plate of hope. It tells you in your darkest hour that someone, somewhere, cares about you.”

Escobar says his team takes into account the food habits of the locals by producing items such as stews flavoured with typical Turkish spices and familiar proteins like chicken. Besides, they also serve bulgur – a cracked wheat foodstuff typically used in Asian cooking.

“We haven’t come here to make burgers and hot dogs, rather to cook for the people what they truly have been waiting for, homemade food, well prepared with them in mind,” he says.

Escobar also underscores the positive impact food can have on people’s spirits.

“When you are working with people who have just lost everything, our role, more than feeding, is to try to increase morale. The food that we are producing is so special that its aim is to try to bring a smile, to try to bring a little bit of normality to somebody who is experiencing total chaos.”

He also notes the solidarity among the Turkish people who have come to volunteer from non-impacted regions such as Istanbul.

He says they typically approach the camp and get redirected by Turkish Disaster and Emergency Management Authority (AFAD) in the direction of the team’s field kitchen.

“I had the luck, the blessing, to count on very good help and I’m here with chefs from the city of Istanbul, professional cooks who are available and under my direction to make this operation possible,” says Escobar.

“My mission is until March 10 after which my idea is to cede the operation to these Turkish volunteers so that they keep doing what we’ve been doing. Then we as an organisation keep supporting them economically. We will pay for the operation as we are doing but without our direction and under Turkish direction,” explains the Colombian chef.

Food distribution in Antakya will continue under the locals, like 42-year-old Turkish Sezgin Sayiliroglu who has been a chef for five years.

Arriving more than a week ago, Sayiliroglu says he has been working around 15 hours a day in the kitchen. “My role is to put (in) the right ingredients, the right spices to the food to cook it well,” he tells TRT World.

Sayiliroglu says he is here for the long haul and will help however he can, insisting “I can stay maybe three or four months. It doesn’t matter.”

He hopes over time the survivors may be able to rebuild their lives but right now they need solidarity to overcome such extreme adversity.

“We are only human beings, so if we have bad (experiences) in life, it reminds us that we are human beings and we should always be together no matter from what city, from what country, from what religion you are. You should always support each other,” Sayiliroglu adds.

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