By Joe Howell
Though Ayşenur Ince is still in the first year of her Master of Pastoral Studies (MPS) program at Emmanuel College, tragedy has already called upon her developing skills in spiritual care and counselling.
A Turkish Canadian, Ince spent the fall semester studying on campus at Emmanuel College, a theological college part of Victoria University in the University of Toronto. She returned to Türkiye to study remotely this term—only to find herself at ground zero after a series of earthquakes devastated the region nearly three weeks ago. “The government is doing everything they can. However, the magnitude is so severe that civilians have also had to help out,” says Ince.
With over 46,000 lives lost in Syria and Türkiye since the disaster on Feb. 6 and millions of people displaced, the need for physical and spiritual healing is immense. “They called for psychotherapists and doctors and nurses and pharmacists—they asked for anyone who could assist, the situation is that bad.”
Stationed in Istanbul, she’s been counselling people who escaped the disaster, and those who’ve returned from rescue work in shattered cities. It’s not just people who were on the front lines who are struggling, however. “Everybody has issues sleeping, they’re experiencing nightmares, they can’t eat,” says Ince.
“One of the first things I did was email my professors at Emmanuel and they asked, ‘How can I help?’ Even though I have formal training, I needed someone to help me with psychological first aid.” She wrote to Pamela McCarroll, the vice-principal, and Nazila Isgandarova, the Master of Pastoral Studies program director, along with some of her cohort. The community leapt into action, with support coming in different forms.
Professors offered Ince guidance and urgent training. “Some of the key competencies in the spiritual care and counselling or psychotherapy programs include psychological and spiritual first aid within the context of disasters,” says McCarroll. “We talked about critical interventions in times of crisis.”
Ince found this extra mentorship invaluable. “Crises and tragedies can affect people’s beliefs at their core,” she says. “It can make us ask the question, ‘Why do bad things happen to good people?’ And that’s where we can get stuck.”
The disaster may have put this difficult question in sharp relief, but it’s one she’s long been interested in. Having previously completed a master’s in clinical psychology, she aspired to intertwine her Muslim faith with this secular science. So she set out on what she calls “a journey of spiritual healing” that took her to Jerusalem, and then to the MPS program at Emmanuel College.
As she helps people heal in Türkiye, she’s especially glad she did. “I never thought that just one and a half terms at Emmanuel would add this much to my life,” says Ince, who will likely apply for the Certificate in Spiritual Care and Psychotherapy when eligible. “The MPS program understands that humans have differing needs,” she reflects. “ For some, religion gives comfort. It’s like lighting a candle in dark times — it symbolizes hope.”
Eager to support Ince’s work, there was an outpouring of material assistance from students, says Isgandarova. At first, they sent money directly to Ince, who used the funds to help purchase dozens of portable coal stoves to warm those without electricity. (She now asks people donate to the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.)
Emmanuel also sent boxes of food overseas, and held a vigil one week after the disaster. “We wanted to give people the chance to join together, remember the victims, and raise awareness,” says Isgandarova. “Our students were active in organizing that.”
The Rev. Dr. HyeRan Kim-Cragg, principal of Emmanuel College, says Ince’s story is a timely response, and represents the school’s impact. “Our multi-faith community has always offered vital spiritual care and mental health support around the world, and we are all so proud of our students’ contributions to responding to this terrible catastrophe.”