Impact Stories

First-person stories from people impacted by Ford Fund

Heroes Helping Earthquake Victims: Meet Töre Deniz Yilmaz

Two males, two females stand facing the camera with arms wrapped around shoulders in front of a warehouse filled with pallets filled with boxes.
Pictured from left: TRG's Töre Deniz Yilmaz and Mehmet Toeremis, with Arabic Resource Group members Ilham Zair and Soumaya Schmidt-Aarbi.

COLOGNE, Germany - Töre Deniz Yilmaz knows all too well how frightening an earthquake can be. In 1999, he was a student in Istanbul when a violent tremor measuring 7.4 on the Richter Scale rocked the Gölcük region, leaving more than 17,000 people dead.

"It was 3 a.m., and I was in bed when I felt a sensation like I was on a skateboard being pushed back and forth," he recalled. "All the lights went off. It was very scary. I thought that the whole city would be destroyed. It was a terrifying experience."

Those memories came rushing back when Yilmaz, now a passenger vehicle planning supervisor based in Cologne, learned of the February earthquake that devastated Türkiye and neighbouring Syria, killing more than 55,000 people.

"I opened my computer, and the first messages came through from our Turkish Resource Group (TRG) saying,'God Bless all those who had died.' I turned on the television and saw the news. The images were shocking. It was awful," said Yilmaz, who is chairman of Ford's TRG in Germany. "Thank God, I had no friends or relatives among the victims, but straight away we started to hear sad news from friends and colleagues from the region."

Immediately, Ford's Turkish community began working around the clock to organize much-needed supplies for the earthquake victims.

"The following day we set up a big team meeting with members of the Turkish community," said Yilmaz. "There were many people who had experienced the 1999 earthquake that were desperate to go to the area to help."

The group came up with a list of things that they could do and then set up a meeting with Rainer Ludwig who is a TRG sponsor and board member of Ford of Germany. Yilmaz and TRG were then contacted by the Ford Fund – the philanthropic arm of Ford Motor Company. An appeal for monetary donations to the Ford Fund's GlobalGiving Disaster and Crisis Relief effort was set up. In parallel, a huge appeal for in-kind donations of much-needed supplies was launched at Ford facilities in Germany and the UK.

"When the Ford Fund got involved, there was such a huge wave of support," said Yilmaz. "It was such a massive enabler for us. Ford Fund opened all the doors, and I cannot thank Ford Fund Manager Debbie Chennells and Yvonne Stephan from Community Involvement enough."

With a firm plan in place, Özkan Aydemir, a TRG project team member, assembled a team of volunteers to help sort and pack donated items at a Ford facility in Cologne. Within a day of reaching out, 50 people had come forward. Soon, that number increased to 90.

"Yvonne told me that if TRG could take care of finding volunteers, she would arrange the transportation," Yilmaz explained. "She also found a production facility for us so that we had a location to sort and pack donations."

By the end of the first week, they had gathered two full truckloads.

"The volunteers have been incredible. They do this with love. I must also give thanks to the people from Cologne bodyshop, under the leadership of Güven Günay, who freed up space for us in the plant," said Yilmaz. "It was an incredible effort. They organized forklift drivers and documented everything. They are a team of more than 10 who are always on site, and they have been fabulous."

Yilmaz also thanks Fahrettin Isikdemir, a TRG board member, who managed to get hold of 113 heaters from a local warehouse – at half price – that were purchased with money donated by FN and TRG team members.

"All the people who have donated and volunteered their time to help have demonstrated that we care for each other and that we are family," said Yilmaz. "These are key Ford values."

The February earthquake affected 11 cities in Türkiye, all of which have Ford dealerships. One dealership was destroyed, but the others remain intact. So, Ford Otosan removed cars and equipment from the facilities and converted the buildings into temporary living spaces for victims.

"Ford Otosan has been brilliant. They started sending dealers in-kind donations from the first day, and the dealers provide essentials, such as shelter, water, power, and toilets," said Yilmaz. "Each dealer has different needs. Some need tents. Others need heaters, diapers and so on. They contact Otosan and Otosan tracks everything. They know exactly what is needed on the ground, and that enabled us to be very specific about the items we wanted people and organizations to donate."

All donated items were placed in bags, put in boxes and placed on pallets covered in a waterproof wrap, in case of inclement weather. For Yilmaz, the biggest challenge hasn't been securing volunteers or donations. What worries him most, he said, is that the clock is ticking.

"The challenge for me is the race against time and getting help to people who need it most as soon as possible. If we can get someone who is cold a blanket one day earlier, it will make a huge difference," he said. "Fortunately, Transport Operations, led by Thorsten Schmidt, has been fantastic. They arranged all the trucks and dealt with customs. They told us not to worry because they would handle it all. The support is just unbelievable."

The trucks containing all the in-kind donations left Germany for Türkiye on March 15.

"Going forward, we will not stop the action," said Yilmaz. "We know that Türkiye will be hit by more earthquakes. It's just a matter of time. We have learned a lot of lessons from this action. Now it's about how we can further help the people, and how we can better prepare ourselves so that we can push the button earlier and help people faster and more effectively the next time there's an earthquake. This doesn't just apply to Türkiye. There are natural disasters all over the world."

Passing some of the donated in-kind goods to Syria was investigated and discussed with Otosan.

"Because of the ongoing conflict there the borders are closed and there is no way we can get goods through," Yilmaz adds. "Nevertheless, members of the Arabic Resource Group came and volunteered to help with the in-kind donations action although they knew that the goods would not be going to Syria. They came and volunteered to help sort out things and to pack, and it was a great moment to see the Arabic Resource Group and TRG working together to help the region."