Duke student dies in Turkey earthquake, her brother shares fight to find her

A Duke University graduate student was among the more than 41,000 people who died after a massive 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck Turkey and Syria.

Samar Zora was prepared to travel the world to do research for her doctorate, but her trip was cut short on February 6.

An international effort has finally brought Zora home.

“We were just drowning in anxiety,” Saad Zora said of the search for his twin sister.

Saad Zora said his sister was an intellect and a hard worker. She had finished her courses and exams. She was in the middle of a research trip that would take her to some of the oldest cities in Turkey and beyond.

In 2019, Samar Zora began studying at Duke University.

Saad Zora knew his sister was in Antakya, Turkey, the heart of the earthquake zone, but didn’t know where.

He called and texted from his home in Canada, eventually tracking her to a first-floor apartment in a building that no longer existed.

“We had to go,” said Saad Zora.

Saad Zora was joined by his older brother, Manara, and Summer Steenberg, who is also a Duke student. Steenberg was in the same graduate program as Samar Zora, and was doing his own research in Iraqi Kurdistan when the earthquake happened.

“I honestly don’t know what I would have done without her there,” Saad Zora said of Steenberg. “The summer was an incredible help.”

Steenberg said the university contacted her by mistake. She then felt compelled to help, and reached out to Saad Zora, abandoning her own research and joining him in Antakya, where her classmate was killed.

“I found out shortly after that her two brothers were on their way there and as soon as I knew they were going, I knew I was going because you don’t let people go into a situation like that alone,” Steenberg said .

Steenberg said she was lucky to have a counselor who let her travel to Turkey to try to find her classmate.

“(She) definitely cultivated a lot of loyalty in the people closest to her,” Steenberg said of Samar Zora.

Duke graduate student Samar Zora was among the more than 41,000 people who died after the Feb. 6 earthquake.

When the three people arrived in Antakya, what they found was devastating. Ruins surrounded by families searching for their loved ones.

Saad Zora described the conditions under which they stayed.

“We had tents,” said Saad Zora. “There (was) a couple sleeping in the car.

“My brother was there two days longer because he lives in Kuwait, so it’s a quicker trip over. I flew there from Canada, so it took (about) two days.”

Steenberg said it took a lot of networking to find someone who could find Samar Zora’s remains.

“All of us were waiting … to uncover their loved one,” said Saad Zora.

On the ground, Saad Zora managed to get hold of South Korean and Hungarian rescue teams and point them towards his sister’s building.

“These rescue teams, without hesitation, came over (and) brought their K-9 unit, brought thermal sensors and I truly believe if not there, it wouldn’t have happened,” Saad Zora said.

Eventually the rescue became a recovery. Crews brought in a backhoe to sort through the rubble.

“The first excavation took eight hours and they had to stop at night,” said Saad Zora. “The next one was about … just (less than) … two hours, and that’s when they found her.”

Saad Zora says he knew they were close because his sister’s landlord recognized the furniture from her apartment.

“I mean, that’s the end of the search,” Saad Zora said. “Now we have to figure out how to navigate grief.”

Samar Zora’s body was flown to Kuwait, where she and her brother were born.

Saad Zora says his journey is not over. He hopes to help the people he left behind. That includes other families, who are still waiting and praying that those they have lost will eventually be found.

“It would almost feel like a crime … if we didn’t help,” he said.

The Zora family hopes that Duke will recognize Samar’s work and dedication. They hope the university will award her an honorary degree.

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