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Cenk Akarpinar, the Stonington High School girls’ basketball assistant coach, originally from Turkey, explains how the recent earthquake has devastated his country and caused hardships for his family and friends still residing in Turkey, Thursday, Feb. 23, 2023, in the Stonington gymnasium. | Tim Martin, The Westerly Sun

STONINGTON — When a 7.8-magnitude earthquake struck southern and central Turkey on Feb. 6, Stonington High girls basketball assistant coach Cenk Akarpinar awoke uneasy from a dead sleep at 3 a.m. and immediately sensed that something was wrong.

Born and raised in Turkey, the 24-year-old grabbed his phone and turned it on to find numerous emergency alerts showing his homeland had been devastated by a natural disaster, one that has left 47,000 confirmed dead and countless others still missing with little hope they remain alive. Akarpinar still recalls his frantic calls and attempts to message his family, who had to relocate from their destroyed home in Gaziantep, close to the epicenter of the quake, to less-than-stable housing three hours away in Mersin, on the Meditteranean coast, even staying in their car for several days to survive the intense winter cold.

“I could not call, I could not text. There was no way to get in touch with anyone,” he said Wednesday, sitting inside the gymnasium at Stonington High School. “I did not hear from anyone for more than a day and a half, and at that point, before I got a call from my 10-year-old sister, I feared they were all dead.”

A series of earthquakes including two on Feb. 6 and another pair four days ago has wrought devastation in 10 cities in Turkey and northern Syria across a stretch of land about the size of New England.

Akarpinar’s parents, Ergun and Derya, his older sister, Melis, and his younger sister, Doga, were all fortunate enough to escape, but there are others, including his best friend, Musa Aslan, whom he will never see again.

Six days after the initial quake, Aslan was found dead underneath a pile of debris where his apartment building once stood, killed when the stairwell collapsed as he was attempting to flee to safety. Akarpinar has not yet heard from anyone at the completely demolished Islahiye High School near the epicenter of the quakes, where he coached one year in 2018 while attending Gaziantep University.

“The school has been flattened. It’s gone, nothing but rubble,” Akarpinar said. “Its been over two weeks now and I don't think I am going to hear from any of them ever again.”

It was been a rollercoaster month for Akarpinar, who has sought to aid friends and family half a world away while simultaneously helping guide the red-hot Stonington girls basketball team to the Eastern Connecticut Conference Division II basketball championship. He said it has been the strength and support of the young but talented squad that has helped lift him up following news of the devastation back home.

A 2½-year resident of Mystic — Akarpinar first came to the U.S. in 2019 and has spent much of his time here since, working as a mechanical engineer in Rhode Island — he first joined the team mid-season after connecting with veteran coach Paulla Solar by email and seeking to work alongside her.

In a phone interview this week, Solar said Akarpinar’s leadership was instrumental in the championship after he joined the coaching staff following its 2-8 start to the season, helping lead them to a 12-11 record and ECC Division II championship. The team is preparing for their coming first-round state tournament game.

“After everything he’s been through, he could have stepped away and no one would have blamed him. That’s not what he’s done, and his experience has been a motivating factor for our girls on this run,” she said.

Solar said Akarpinar’s passion for the game has been instrumental, but he credited the girls with giving him a much-needed distraction from the challenges facing him and his family. Akarpinar said after the earthquakes struck, Solar told him he did not need to attend the game, but he replied that it was the only place he wanted to be.

When Akarpinar walked into the gymnasium for the game, however, he said he was surprised to see the entire team wearing hair ribbons to honor those impacted by the earthquakes, and the show brought tears of joy to his eyes.

“There we were, halfway around the world, and everyone on the team, including all the girls and the coaches, were showing their support and kindness,” he said. “Basketball has always been my refuge, and at that moment, it meant everything.”

The team also raised $1,000 to support Akarpinar and those in Turkey, with the donation made to UNICEF on his behalf. He praised the donation, but also said simply knowing that he had the support here, the concern of those who have never met his family, has been the best medicine for him right now.

Akarpinar suggested that anyone seeking to help use UNICEF because the organization will aid not only those in Turkey, but anywhere in the world where money is needed in natural and even socio-economic disasters.

It will take years for those in Turkey to rebuild, but with the support from around the world providing hope for Akarpinar and his family, he said they are focused on doing just that. In the meantime, he said he is looking forward to seeing what his core of young basketball talent can do in the state tournament, as well as working with Solar to position the team for success in future seasons as well.

“There are so many talented girls here, and many have struggled through their own personal struggles and challenges. Look how far it has gotten them,” Akarpinar said. “They have inspired me, and I am looking forward to seeing what we can do (in the state tournament).”

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