‘She was the one’: Finding love in the midst of Turkey’s earthquake

A Syrian and Ukrainian refugee met in Turkey, fell in love, and decided to be together forever after the quake.

Anna Rudnichenko and Ahmed Nached
Anna and Ahmad [Courtesy of Anna Rudnichenko]

Gaziantep, Turkey – A few hours after the first massive earthquake that struck southern Turkey and northern Syria last year, Ahmad Nached decided to marry his partner, Anna Rudnichenko.

Ahmad, 30, and Anna, 23, were asleep in their old eighth-floor apartment when the first tremors woke them from a deep sleep.

The two massive earthquakes, which struck a few hours apart, killed more than 50,000 people in both countries.

The couple, who hail from Syria and Ukraine respectively, assumed that the noise and destruction were an air raid, a familiar occurrence for them.

It took them a few minutes to realise it was an earthquake, which neither of them had ever experienced in their lives.

From their cosy home in Gaziantep, as they talk about the last details of their first Valentine’s Day as husband and wife, they explain they had never talked about marriage before the tragedy.

Rudnichenko decided to move to Turkey from her native Zaporizhia in 2021, seeking independence after graduating from university. “I always had this affinity for Turkey because, when I was little, I lived here for a few years,” she told Al Jazeera.

She chose Gaziantep, a city famous for its cuisine, where she found part-time jobs in hotel management and teaching English.

What for her was a choice was forced on Ahmad by the conflict ravaging his country. In 2012, after taking part in the protests in his native Aleppo that, over time, led to clashes with the government and a war, his parents sent him and his sister to safety in Gaziantep, just across the border.

Since then, Nached has been working with Syrian humanitarian organisations in Turkey while cultivating his passion for electronic music at Room41, a collective of Syrian and Turkish DJs trying to brighten up Gaziantep’s nights.

Anna Rudnichenko and Ahmed Nached
A proposal, a sunset, and a ring [Courtesy of Anna Rudnichenko]

Initially disappointed by Gaziantep’s lack of nightclubs, Rudnichenko ended up attending one of Room41’s parties.

“All I remember of that night is that the music suddenly turned off at what, according to me, was quite early – around 1am,” Rudnichenko recalls. “So I went to the console, quite angry, complaining to the DJ and asking him why the party was already over,” she laughs from the couch, sipping a hot cup of Turkish tea.

Nached remembers being confused by the way she approached him, but he had had a feeling all day that he would meet someone that night.

It took time, but eventually, their friendship evolved into something more. Nached says dating someone from a different background makes the relationship richer.

Rudnichenko had never met a Syrian refugee and was fascinated by Nached’s story. Little did she know that in less than a year, she, too, would become a refugee.

When the war in Ukraine started, Nached knew the exact words to comfort his partner because he had been through it.

“We now had something more in common drawing us closer,” he says. “We both were very upset for our countries, but as a Syrian with a decade-worth background in war trauma management, I knew how to pass on the skill of keeping calm while your loved ones are stuck in a war zone.”

While the unusual couple shared a tragic backstory, it also highlighted the significant differences in their displacement.

As a Syrian in Turkey, Nached says he experiences a lot of racism. “I’ve always felt like I had to hide my identity, trying not to speak Arabic in the streets or portraying the best version of me to not be labelled as ‘the bad one’,” he explains.

Turkey hosts more than three million Syrian refugees, and there have been tensions between them and the local population since 2012, highlighted by the earthquake fallout and national elections characterised by a ferocious campaign against Syrians.

Anna Rudnichenko and Ahmed Nached
Anna and Ahmad married on Christmas Day [Courtesy of Anna Rudnichenko]

On the other hand, since early 2022, Turkey has also welcomed thousands of Ukrainian refugees, who feel a lot more welcome and integrated. In Gaziantep, both refugee communities live together but are treated differently. “When I say I’m Ukrainian, I get a lot of compassion and sympathy,” says Rudnichenko. “But the same doesn’t happen to Ahmad.”

In February 2023, Nached and Rudnichenko spent a couple of days in a shelter in the city before being evacuated to a hotel in Ankara through Nached’s workplace. They were so shocked they decided to leave Gaziantep.

They looked into Canada resettlement programmes, but eventually opted for Germany, a common destination for Syrian and Ukrainian refugees. Rudnichenko left first, hopeful to find assistance upon arrival.

“But since I was not coming directly from Ukraine, I could not qualify as a refugee, even though I could not return to my country, which is the description of a refugee,” she explains. The same went for Nached, as the Syrian crisis is no longer considered an emergency in Europe that entitles Syrian asylum seekers to be accepted for resettlement.

In Germany, Rudnichenko finally experienced the same kind of racism that Syrians experience daily in Gaziantep. “Only then, I could really empathise with what Ahmad had lived through for over 10 years,” she says.

After five months, they decided to give up and stay in Turkey. In the meantime, life had gone back to normal in the earthquake zone and they felt safe enough to return to Gaziantep together.

Last September, during a trip to Istanbul’s Princes Islands, Nached proposed to Rudnichenko, and the two got married in Gaziantep on Christmas Day.

After the last year, they never imagined they would be spending Valentine’s Day in Gaziantep. But they say the city – despite the tragedy it witnessed – remains their perfect refuge.

“Whatever the future is hiding for us, spending it with the right person just makes the world and this life a little less traumatic,” Nached says.

Source: Al Jazeera