Torontonians with connections to southeast Turkiye and northern Syria have been desperately trying to get in touch with friends and family who may have been killed, injured, or displaced by the powerful 7.8 magnitude earthquake that struck the region on Monday.

The quake has left more than 3,400 people dead, and thousands more injured, after it toppled thousands of buildings and trapped residents under mounds of rubble.

Local authorities fear the death toll will keep climbing as rescuers search through tangles of metal and concrete for survivors in a region beset by Syria’s 12-year civil war and a refugee crisis. 

Muhammet Yildrim, who lives in Toronto but has many loved ones in the region, says he’s fortunately heard from his family, but is still waiting to hear from a number of his friends.

“Before [we heard their voices], we were hopeless and powerless. We’ve never felt that hopeless before. And when we heard their voices, we got the light back,” Yildrim said.

“It was a hard time to wait here, but we knew the hardest time was for them. They’re waiting under buildings and they're waiting outside with their family.”

Yildrim said he feels lucky that his family wasn’t hurt because he knows others who are still waiting to hear from their loved ones, fearing the worst.

“When I spoke to my friends, I was really sad for them. I have never felt that sad before,” he said.

“Because when you're here, you can’t do anything; you feel helpless. You're just waiting here and there's no way to help them or reach them.”

Yildrim says he’s been trying to get in contact with one of his friends for more than 20 hours. He was able to reach his friend’s family, but they told Yildrim they didn’t know where he was either.

Mert Selvili, a small business owner based in Toronto who previously lived in Turkiye with his family for about 30 years, stressed the importance of understanding the size of the area impacted by the quake.

“The size of the area is like from Niagara to Ottawa; 500 kilometers wide, including 10 cities that all got hit,” Selvili said.

“Right now, over 5,600 buildings have collapsed and these numbers are increasing rapidly.”

Selvili says another factor making rescue efforts even more challenging, is the cold winter temperatures gripping the region.

“It's very cold outside and many people are just stuck in the wreckage. And people are trying to access to the cities but unfortunately, roads and highways are damaged,” Selvili said.

“Right now Turkiye is racing [against] time to save people because of the conditions. The major concern is hypothermia.” 

Selvili says his family in Turkiye lives in Istanbul and was luckily unaffected by the quake, however he too has friends in the country’s southeast that he still hasn’t heard from.

“We have some friends that we couldn't get any news about. My wife's cousin lives in Gaziantep, one of the cities that was affected,” he said.

Yildrim said that for those injured in the quake, it’s nearly impossible to find hospitals able to provide medical care, since they were among the buildings that were brought down.

“When I talked with my friends, they [said they] tried to get their family to the hospital, but when they went there, [it was] down. They just saw the hospital's gone and they don't know what to do,” he said.

Yildrim said he and some of his friends in Toronto are trying to get supplies like carpets and beds together to send to the region, along with money to help those in need.

Earlier today, Mayor John Tory tweeted a message of support for those affected on behalf of Torontonians, saying, “Our thoughts are with those impacted by the devastating earthquake.”

The Toronto sign outside City Hall will be dimmed this evening to honour those who have lost their lives, and the CN Tower will dim its lights for 5 minutes at the top of each hour.

Federal Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau also tweeted messages to the people of Turkiye and Syria, saying their thoughts were with those affected.

Trudeau added that “Canada stands ready to provide assistance.” 

With files from the Canadian Press.