Harrowing Turkey earthquake account gives Yildiz gratitude, perspective upon return to MacEwan

Ali Yildiz is back with the Griffins after spending the 2022-23 season playing for Turkish side Hatayspor. He was living in the city of Antakya when last February's devastating earthquake hit (Jefferson Hagen photo).
Ali Yildiz is back with the Griffins after spending the 2022-23 season playing for Turkish side Hatayspor. He was living in the city of Antakya when last February's devastating earthquake hit (Jefferson Hagen photo).

Jefferson Hagen
MacEwan Athletics

EDMONTON – Slashing through a peaceful dream, the voice jolted him out of a deep slumber as he heard his uncle screaming his name.

Ali Yildiz awoke with a start and quickly gathered his bearings.

Clock read 4:17 a.m.

The room was moving.

He had one thought as Antakya, Turkey began the throes of the deadliest earthquake to hit the region in its modern history.

"My first instinct was to get my auntie and uncle out," said the MacEwan Griffins men's soccer player, who was staying with family while playing professionally for Turkish Süper Lig club Hatayspor's U19 and reserve teams during the 2022-23 season. "I hopped out of bed – no shoes, no socks. I just hopped out. I had to get them out."

As he raced across the room, he cast a glance at the lamp above his bed. 

It was moving angrily side to side, touching the roof on each side of its frightening sway.

As he and his family poured out onto the street, the wall next to his bed fell.

"The bed I was sleeping on was touching a wall," said Yildiz. "That wall fell outside. If it fell inside, it would have been on top of me."

Tragically, they watched as a three-story house next door collapsed entirely. 

A family of nine with just four survivors. 

They would be among a staggering death toll of nearly 60,000 people in Turkey and Syria, with the devastating Feb. 6, 2023 earthquake causing an estimated US$122.8 billion in damage in the two countries.

Damage is shown from the room that Ali Yildiz was sleeping in when the earthquake hit on Feb. 6, 2023.


Just over 15 months earlier, Yildiz was on top of the world.

He and his Griffins teammates were wildly celebrating on the University of Calgary's Dinosaur Field as they clinched the first Canada West playoff berth in program history.

Playing hero that crisp October afternoon, he sent in a brilliant 83rd-minute cross that Rakan Yassin tapped in, giving MacEwan a 1-0 win over Calgary. 

The moment came a day after Yildiz assisted on Stefan Gajic's goal that sunk the previously-undefeated Dinos by the same score.

His clutch finish to the 2021 season was legendary, especially given his young age. Finishing with three points in the team's final four games, the sky was the limit for a guy who couldn't even vote yet.

"Ali Yildiz just comes through as a young 17-year-old and gets us that game-winning assist," Griffins head coach Adam Loga marvelled after the game.

Ali Yildiz recorded three points for the Griffins in his rookie Canada West season in 2021 (Robert Antoniuk photo).

The offer came in from Hatayspor the following summer and he embarked on the international journey to his ancestral homeland. Though he was born in Edmonton, Yildiz holds Turkish citizenship, so he signed as a non-import and prepared for the experience of his life.

"The first game my family came to watch, we were playing at the first team stadium, so it was packed," he recalled. "It held maybe 40,000 people. We're still young, so it was the reserve team. Around 4,000 people came."

Then, as he has been accustomed to doing at MacEwan, Yildiz played hero again. 

"It was tied, and I got the game-winning assist – I created the play," he recalled. "It was the greatest thing. When you go into the family group chat – my family in Canada, family in Turkey – they were all congratulating me."

As the season went on, life was great for Yildiz, a sponge, soaking up all that the opportunity had to offer with the pro side, including training with the first team.

"To see the different levels – just academy to first team – is just so different," he said.

"Playing games was crazy. Obviously, it's the same game, but different intensity, different level. Everything's different there. The way you treat your body, the intensity's different, technical side is different. You learn more of the game in Europe."

About seven months in, the world changed for Hatayspor, who were forced to withdraw from the league after the tragedy and destruction in Antakya. Their most devastating blow came when the bodies of first team player Christian Atsu and sporting director Taner Savut were recovered in the rubble.


In the immediate aftermath of the earthquake, rain crashed down as survivors poured into the streets of cold pre-dawn apocalyptic atmosphere, the community came together. They linked arms in spirit to find survivors, treat the wounded and set up temporary shelter.

"Obviously, we're all connected in that neighbourhood, in that city," said Yildiz. "So, we all helped each other – just going to the markets, getting food, getting water. Everyone walked out with nothing. It was cold, raining, so no clothing, nothing. 

"So, we just tried to help as many people as we could, built firepits around the neighbourhood."

The destruction was widespread across Turkey following the Feb. 6, 2023 earthquake (Courtesy Ali Yildiz).

As they prepared to spend a night outdoors, Yildiz took stock on the fragility of life and their own good fortune.

"My whole family got out safe – just a couple knocks, a couple bruises," he said. "(Despite the destruction to their house) what matters is that we're all safe."

Still, his reflection on the situation was surreal. Just hours earlier, Yildiz spent his Sunday off from training with Hatayspor celebrating his 19th birthday at the very house that now lay partially in rubble.

"When the earthquake happened, it happened Feb. 6 and Feb. 6 is my birthday," he said. "The night before, I cut my birthday cake. I slept and woke up to an earthquake. 

"You can't take anything for granted, you've just got to live your life happy with no regrets. That's what I took from it. You've got to tell your family you love them."


Back in Canada at MacEwan University again, Yildiz is a changed man. 

As a student in MacEwan's Bachelor of Arts program with a goal to become an athletic therapist, the perspective of his experience will stay with him for life.

Helping others is part of his nature, gratitude sewn into his identity.

"The biggest thing is he's a great guy of character," said Loga. "He makes the locker-room better, he makes the sessions better, he's got a great spirit to him, so it's uplifting for the group."

And on the field, Yildiz clearly has another gear from the fresh-faced rookie who laced up his cleats in 2021. Loga said he has something that just can't be taught.

"Ali's always had a bite to him that's rare to see in young players," said Loga, whose team will open the season on Friday vs. Lethbridge and Saturday vs. Saskatchewan (both games 2:30 p.m., Clarke Stadium, Canada West TV). "He just has a hunger, compete and fierceness in him that's an intangible very few have. Not only is he talented, he's very clean technically and he makes great decisions. 

"He's just so competitive. We're happy to have him back."