From the Classroom

USC Religious Center holds a vigil for Turkey-Syria earthquake victims

Students, faculty, staff and community members gather to offer condolences.

people standing in from of speakers

Editor’s Note: This is an archival work. The event took place February 16.

The University Religious Center held a vigil on Thursday evening to honor the lives lost and students impacted by the devastating earthquakes in Turkey and Syria. Faculty, staff, students and community members stood in solidarity as many shared their pain, loss and messages of love.

Varun Soni, the dean of religious and spiritual life, began the vigil by recognizing student organizations such as the Middle Eastern and North African Student Assembly, the Turkish Student Association and their initiatives to support humanitarian efforts in Turkey and Syria.

“Please know that you are seen, that you are heard, that you are loved, and that you belong here,” Soni said. He acknowledged the hardships international students face being far from their families and homes, especially in times of tragedy. Soni invited several religious leaders from the community to share resources, offer support, and lead prayers for the Trojans’ mourning.

“We are brothers and sisters, no matter what your walk of life or tradition of faith,” Father Richard Sunwoo from the Caruso Catholic Center said. He shared how the tragedy has left himself and many others with a new understanding of the “preciousness of life.”

“We are thankful because we are given the gift that many others do not have, which is the gift of today and also the gift of tomorrow,” Sunwoo said.

A student from Orthodox USC led a prayer and Dave Cohn, the executive director at USC Hillel Foundation, spoke to gatherers. Cohn came as a “representative of the Jewish community at USC” to share the comforts he found in the daily prayers of his religion.

Many students and faculty members shared emotional statements, stories, and gratitude to those who attended and organized the vigil.

“Your presence really matters,” said Anthony Khoory, co-executive of the campus Middle Eastern and North African Student Assembly.

Rahsan Akbulut, a professor from the Marshall School of Business, spoke to the crowd openly and honestly about her struggles since the earthquakes.

“I have moments where I feel anger, a constant heavy pain, and also guilt to try to go through life normally,” Akbulut said. She said she was driven to share these feelings because she knew many others were experiencing similar emotions. Although it is a time of immense sadness, Akbulut expressed her amazement at the outpouring of support and love from USC and the international community.

“To see all of a sudden borders disappear, religious differences disappear, differences in language and culture, everything disappears, what’s left is just human,” Akbulut said.

Those who wished to speak were offered the mic. The gathering ended with many loving hugs, quiet words of support and prayers. Several clubs raised money for the victims by selling Turkish coffee and desserts.

Soni ended the vigil with powerful words of togetherness. “Please remember that it is with love that we come together, with love that we go, and with love that we will remain with each other,” Soni said.