A floating shelter for the displaced

A floating shelter for the displaced

More than 1,000 Turkish residents displaced by the recent earthquakes are staying on a luxury boat in the Mediterranean Sea

Gul Seker with the baby she gave birth to within days of arriving aboard the cruise ship 'Gemini', on Feb 24. Sergey Ponomarev /The New York Times
Gul Seker with the baby she gave birth to within days of arriving aboard the cruise ship 'Gemini', on Feb 24. Sergey Ponomarev /The New York Times

The dinner theatre is now a day care centre, where children rifle through boxes of donated toys. The beauty salon has turned into a one-man barbershop.

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 amphitheatre of mountains encompassing the lives they had lost beneath the rubble of two earthquakes that decimated a wide section of Turkey and western Syria.

Earthquake survivors aboard the cruise ship 'Gemini' watch television news coverage of the quake in the port of Iskenderun. Sergey Ponomarev /The New York Times

"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-metre 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 Ms Atay, who lost family and friends in the quakes.

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 Feb 6, according to the province's mayor. The residents of the Gemini are a fortunate fraction of those who remain.

A buffet meal is served aboard 'Gemini'. Sergey Ponomarev /The New York Times

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.

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% 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, Ms Atay said it was her first time on a luxury liner.

People relax on an open aft deck of the cruise ship 'Gemini' in Iskenderun, Turkey. photos:  Sergey Ponomarev/nyt

"We talk about how happy people probably made fun memories on this ship," Ms 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.

"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.

On 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.

The cruise ship 'Gemini', one of at least four floating solutions in Hatay province housing some of the residents displaced by the earthquake, in the port of Iskenderun, Turkey. Sergey Ponomarev /The New York Times

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.

Gul Seker, 34, was preparing to give birth while living in an encampment of shipping containers in Iskenderun when a neighbour called and urged her to apply for a spot on the ship.

People in a lounge area aboard 'Gemini' in Iskenederun. Sergey Ponomarev /The New York Times

Within hours, she was on the Gemini with her husband and son. Days later, she went into labour. "I thought I was going to die," said Ms 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.

People relax aboard the cruise ship 'Gemini' in the port of Iskenederun. Sergey Ponomarev /The New York Times

"We call her our miracle," Ms 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.

Yunus Kutuku, a barber who lost his shop in the Feb 6 earthquake, trims hair. Sergey Ponomarev /The New York Times

People aboard the cruise ship 'Gemini' in Iskenederun. Sergey Ponomarev /The New York Times

A woman reads a Quran aboard the 'Gemini', one of at least four floating solutions in Hatay province housing residents displaced by the earthquake, in the port of Iskenederun. Sergey Ponomarev /The New York Times

A view of another boat from the cruise ship 'Gemini'. Sergey Ponomarev /The New York Times

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