‘A strange dream’: A cruise ship is a floating shelter for displaced Turks

A woman reads a Quran aboard the cruise ship Gemini. (Photos: NYTimes)
ISKENDERUN, Turkey — The dinner theater is now a day care center, where children rifle through boxes of donated toys. The beauty salon has turned into a one-man barbershop.اضافة اعلان

On a recent afternoon, young boys raced across the wide decks that run the length of the Gemini, a cruise ship floating off the coast of southern Turkey. Families drank tea and peered at an amphitheater of mountains encompassing the lives they had lost beneath the rubble of two earthquakes that decimated a wide section of Turkey and western Syria.

A view of another boat from the cruise ship Gemini, one of at least four floating solutions in Hatay province to housing some of the residents displaced by the earthquake, in the port of Iskenederun, Turkey.

“We’re in a strange dream — it is haunting,” said Basak Atay, a 30-year-old nurse. She has spent the past several days living with her family on the 164-meter luxury ship, which has become a shelter for some of the estimated 1.7 million Turks displaced by the quakes and their aftershocks.

“I would never have guessed that I would be on a cruise to nowhere at a moment like this,” said Atay, who lost family and friends in the quakes.
“I would never have guessed that I would be on a cruise to nowhere at a moment like this.”
The ship, which used to ferry vacationers from Turkey to the Greek islands, is housing more than 1,000 survivors in the port of Iskenderun, in the hard-hit province of Hatay. At least 650,000 residents have fled the region since the first quake on February 6, according to the province’s mayor. The residents of the Gemini are a fortunate fraction of those who remain.

‘We are broken’
The government in Turkey, which was saddled with a housing crisis before the earthquake, has resorted to a patchwork of impromptu fixes to help the displaced.

People aboard the cruise ship Gemini in the port of Iskenederun, Turkey, on February 24, 2023.

The Gemini is one of at least five floating solutions that dot the coastline of Hatay, providing aid to thousands of people. A military ship at a nearby port has been converted into a hospital, where doctors have performed dozens of surgeries, including a baby delivery, since the first temblor. Local ferries offer housing and transport families across the Mediterranean Sea to northern cities such as Istanbul and Mersin, where the population has increased by almost 21 percent over the past three weeks.

In December, Turkey’s Ministry of Energy leased the Gemini, with its 400 cabins, to temporarily house its staff off the coast of Filiyos, in the Black Sea. When the earthquake struck, the ship was sent to Iskenderun’s port so that it could be repurposed for survivors. Local officials handled requests to board it, allocating cabins to people who were disabled, elderly, or pregnant or who had young children.

Like many passengers, Atay said it was her first time on a luxury liner.

“We talk about how happy people probably made fun memories on this ship,” Atay said, adding that she could imagine people dancing on the deck below, where strings of lights swayed above a wooden floor. “But we are broken.”

Before landing on the Gemini, she said, her family of eight had sprinted through an obstacle course of temporary shelters — a car, a tent, a hotel — while she continued to work as a nurse in the emergency ward of a private hospital about 20 minutes from the port.

Gul Seker with the baby she gave birth to within days of arriving aboard the cruise ship Gemini, in the port of Iskenederun, Turkey, on February 24, 2023.

“I feel I have been walking on my tiptoes,” she said, recalling her relief when she arrived on the boat and had her first night of uninterrupted sleep, one day after a magnitude-6.6 earthquake struck near Iskenderun, causing more buildings to collapse.

A semblance of routineOn Deck 6, Ayse Acikgoz, 72, sat on a white leather bench, knitting warm clothing for her 15 grandchildren, who she said were still living in tents. One floor above, in the Eclipse lounge, a dozen people watched news of the quake zone on television. At the front of the ship, a group of men thumbed prayer beads as they surrounded a match of backgammon.

At lunchtime diners in the Aegean Restaurant scooped lentils, lamb liver, and rice into plastic dishes at the buffet line. Children ogled an array of desserts, including orange slices and syrupy balls of fried dough.

“The food is warm, and the options change every day,” said Ayse Simsek, 33, who said she and her two daughters had survived in her car for nine days on cups of soup provided by relief groups before they boarded the Gemini.

Baby on boardGul Seker, 34, was preparing to give birth while living in an encampment of shipping containers in Iskenderun when a neighbor called and urged her to apply for a spot on the ship. Within hours, she was on the Gemini with her husband and son. Days later, she went into labor.

Yunus Kutuku, a barber who lost his shop in the February 6 earthquake, trims hair in the salon aboard the cruise ship Gemini in the port of Iskenederun, Turkey.

“I thought I was going to die,” said Seker, who has hypertension. “I called my husband to say goodbye,” she said, recounting the story in her seventh-floor cabin overlooking an expanse of blue. A ship receptionist arranged to move her to the hospital on the military ship nearby, she said. She ended up giving birth in a public hospital in Iskenderun.

“We call her our miracle,” Seker said, reaching into a stroller to arrange the lace on her daughter’s bonnet. Baby bottles and diapers were stacked on a shelf with clothes and stuffed animals — gifts from the passengers and crew.

The baby is named after the cruise company, Miray, which is spelled in soft blue lettering on the walls of the Gemini.

Free haircutsOn Deck 8, a local barber, Yunus Kutuku, 34, presides over what was once a beauty salon. The second quake destroyed the barbershop where had worked for 20 years in Iskenderun, but on the ship, he has given dozens of cuts to survivors free of charge.
“We talk about how happy people probably made fun memories on this ship… But we are broken.”
“I’ve become a local celebrity here,” he said as he maneuvered expertly around an enthusiastic boy wearing a bright green Batman shirt. “It keeps me busy. As long as I have scissors, I can go on.”

He has cut the hair of at least five passengers who were regulars at his shop before the quake. “It relaxes them,” he said. “It gives them the semblance of things going back to normal,” he added, before shouting “next” to the long line of boys waiting for their turn.

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