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Hundreds of quake survivors are living in a structure dating back more than 400 years


People in Turkey and Syria who lost their homes in an earthquake need somewhere to stay for months. We heard last week on the program about people living in temporary homes - little portable houses dropped down in rows amid the ruins of their neighborhoods. That's the 21st century solution. NPR's Peter Kenyon reports on the old-school solution - people living in a centuries-old trading post for travelers.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Near the Turkish harbor town of Payas stands the Sokollu Mehmed Pasha complex. It was designed by the most renowned architect of the Ottoman period, Mimar Sinan. Although built in the 16th century as a caravanserai - a waystation for passing caravans - it's made out of stone and built like a fortress. And the powerful earthquake and aftershocks that rumbled through last month caused only minor damage. Its rooms are now full of families who either have no home left standing or are afraid to sleep there, and many more live in tents outside the complex.

Fourteen-year-old Nisa Aydin, with her mother and others from her family of seven, says they're sharing one room in the complex. She says they were lucky to find someone leaving just as they arrived five days earlier. She spoke through an interpreter.

NISA AYDIN: (Speaking Turkish).

UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER: No one really told them to come have shelter here. They guessed that because it's, like, an old structure that might be still standing and safe.

KENYON: When Aydin mentions the family home, her 5-year-old brother Mehmet chimes in, perhaps feeling that his sister wasn't conveying just how scary the earthquake was.

MEHMET AYDIN: (Speaking Turkish).

KENYON: He says the earthquake was very strong, and his mom cried out, the walls are coming down, before they ran out to safety. When asked how long they might be here, Nisa shrugs and says, maybe a month or two. And Mehmet says, until our house is fixed.

MEHMET: Bye-bye.

KENYON: Bye-bye.

With water, electricity, food and sanitation, families here feel relatively fortunate. For all the heat the government has taken for its initial slow response to the disaster, it did open this 140,000-square-foot space to those displaced by the earthquake.

Not far from the town of Samandag, an ad hoc aid distribution center is being run by volunteers from the area. I meet one of them just as he tells a family of five that if he can't find a tent for them, he'll give them his own. His name is Burc. He asked that his family name not be used, saying he doesn't want either help or trouble from the government. He says so far, they've been able to get tents and other aid out to the surrounding villages, which he says mostly haven't received official help yet.

BURC: (Through interpreter) We are an independent group. We met on the way here and agreed to work together. We try to keep ourselves healthy. This is my 18th day. It's way beyond the danger limit.

KENYON: There are some aid groups here, but no sign of AFAD, the government emergency disaster response agency. AFAD has been accused of confiscating aid from NGOs and opposition political parties. Burc says their priorities have shifted as the weeks passed, from basics like sleeping bags and food to more permanent solutions for shelter so that greenhouses, for instance, can stop being sleeping areas, and farmers can go back to producing crops and milk.

BURC: (Through interpreter) Because all the farmers are sleeping in their greenhouses that are normally for production. The tent complexes are useless. Because the farmers have cows, they can't leave them. Once the electricity is back, they will put on the cow-milking machines.

KENYON: Similar unofficial aid groups have sprung up around the earthquake zone, distributing tents and other supplies people will need to get through the coming weeks and months.

Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Samandag, Turkey. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Peter Kenyon is NPR's international correspondent based in Istanbul, Turkey.