News of the violent earthquakes in Turkey quickly spread among Vodafone Foundation’s Instant Network Team. Discussions were had about who was able to go and what kind of equipment was needed. From the Netherlands, Jeroen Aanraad and Babet Agten joined an international team of volunteers. Each with carefully selected skills for this mission. Read on to hear about this remarkable journey and the incredible power of connection.

With almost a decade of experience in the Instant Network Team, Jeroen is a true veteran. For Babet, on the other hand, this was only her second mission. Immediately the nerves set in. “Mostly because of the uncertainty. We were unsure about whether the mission would go ahead until the very last minute. In the meantime, we prepared all the equipment, followed the news closely and waited for a request for help. After all, you can’t just show up uninvited.” Eventually the request came from Vodafone Turkey, Jeroen says. “They asked whether we wanted to participate in the search and rescue team set up by colleagues in the affected region. We thought long and hard about the situation. Ultimately, we had to turn down the request, but fortunately they also needed our emergency mobile network.”

Gratitude all around
The Uber driver who drove Babet to the airport was Turkish, and asked if she was going to the disaster zone. Babet says: “He told me his wife was in Turkey, and thanked me profusely for what I was going there to do. In the queue at the airport, we met more Turkish people who thanked us again and again, and this went on for the entirety of the trip. A heavy experience awaited us, but because of all the gratitude we received, it was also a special one.”

Where are we most needed?
In Adana, on the outskirts of the affected area, the eight team members gathered from all over the world. First and foremost to decide what they were going to do, and where. Jeroen: “We had a long list of potential locations and various scraps of information. It was difficult to make a decision based on that.” Babet found the solution: “I stumbled upon a website created by Turkish students which showed the exact locations of all the aid organisations, where many people came together, and how much social media traffic there was. With that information, it was easy for us to determine where our help could make the biggest difference. In crowded places where there was little data traffic, we knew there must be a need for internet service.”

Coming face to face with despair
Some of the equipment (Instant Network 2G & 4G) was given to engineers from Vodafone Turkey to be used in the city of Hatay. The team then travelled on to Adiyaman in an ever-growing procession of excavators and other emergency vehicles. The first thing Babet noticed on the way there was that the crash barriers weren’t straight, but twisted like snakes. “Then I saw the first cracks in the road, and more and more collapsed sheds. The destruction was most visible in the towns and cities. It was like a massive bomb had been dropped. But what shocked me the most was seeing people sitting on plastic chairs in the snow, with blank stares, huddled around a fire to keep warm. And behind them you could see the houses, where their family members might be caught under the rubble. It was so surreal and horrifying that we drove through in dead silence. There were soldiers everywhere to keep the peace and to prevent looting. And water was flowing everywhere.” The rushing water was a dangerous source of bacteria and viruses, according to Jeroen. “After a week, germs start to develop. It was good that we got every possible vaccination before we left.”

Helping wherever we can
Once they arrived in Adiyaman, the team stationed itself at a university campus. Over the next two days, the team provided seven locations with Instant Wi-Fi. From coordinates for relief organisations to distribution areas for food and camps for people whose homes were destroyed. They also installed several Instant Chargers. The chargers are crucial, Jeroen explains. “Many people were able to save their phones, but they’re useless without power. Our mobile charging stations allow for [32] phones to be charged rapidly.” We executed our mission with precision, says Babet. “But we also improvised at times. For example, Jeroen noticed that there were only two power outlets in a large hall on campus, where many people were gathered. As soon as he saw that, he said, ‘I’m going to get an Instant Charger.’ He got someone to arrange a table for him, installed the device and gathered whatever chairs he could find for people to sit while they charged. This created a meeting point for everyone there. From bakers and firefighters, to nurses and relief workers.”

Making special connections
Babet does not have a technical background, but is a member of this team because of her communication and organisational skills. “That meant a lot of arranging things, but also communicating with the people around us: from aid workers and contacts to locals. I’m naturally good at connecting with people and this was a particularly special experience for me. Everywhere we went, people asked us where we were from and thanked us for our help. Then they told us their stories. About the family members they had lost, the house they no longer dared to enter, and the unrelenting cold. And they would always offer us a cup of chai tea. There is a lot of sadness and pain, but people are also looking to connect with each other and are very grateful for any small contribution you can make.” Jeroen: “It’s true, I’ve never received so much gratitude in my life. The whole country is in mourning and working together at the same time. The family ties are strong here, which also creates resilience.”

After three days of giving everything they had, Babet and Jeroen were back home. The adrenaline is still in me, says Babet. “And the stories are still swirling around in my mind. It will take some time to process this whole adventure.” As a souvenir, they both picked up a Covid infection. It’s no bother, and pales in comparison to the suffering of the Turkish people at this time. Fortunately, we left a lot of good behind in Turkey, Jeroen explains. “All the equipment we connected was left in the hands of local engineers. Hopefully it will keep running for a very long time.”

With the Instant Network Program the Vodafone Foundation deploys equipment and people who can build a temporary mobile network in disaster zones. This group of volunteers consists of international Vodafone employees, including Dutch VodafoneZiggo colleagues. In recent years, Instant Network has provided help following several natural disasters, such as in Mozambique and the Philippines and during the humanitarian disaster around the Ukrainian border.

Potentiële locaties