Compassion drives Turkey's aid workers
Anadolu Agency speaks to volunteers from Turkish aid organizations on World Humanitarian Day

"Each time, when I doubt about going abroad for humanitarian work, I remember how lonely they will feel if they cannot see us," says a 29- year-old Turkish volunteer who helps orphans in Sudan.

Meryem Keskin, who lives in Turkey's northwestern city of Izmit, has been spending her holidays to help children in need both inside and outside the country.

During the holy month of Ramadan, she stays in Turkey for humanitarian work with Turkish children. She generally travels to Sudan during the Muslims' religious Eid al-Adha for similar work.

"Children are my motivation," Meryem stresses.

Meryem is one of many Turkish volunteers providing humanitarian assistance through charity organizations, in addition to state institutions, that conduct global aid work to meet the needs of millions of people affected by conflicts and disasters.

For World Humanitarian Day, which falls on Aug. 19 -- the day when, in 2003, 22 aid workers were killed in a bombing at the UN headquarters in Baghdad -- Anadolu Agency has spoken to humanitarian workers from the Turkish Disaster and Emergency Management Authority (AFAD), Humanitarian Relief Foundation (IHH), and the Yardimeli Association ("A helping hand" in English), who constitute the backbone of every emergency response in and outside of Turkey.

Meryem works in a home for orphans in Sudan's capital city of Khartoum, which was opened by Turkish charitable foundation Yardimeli.

The house, established on nearly 15,000 square meters of land, operates like a college with a library, a dining hall, dormitory, a guesthouse, pool, and parks. Forty workers, including 10 Sudanese teachers, are employed to run the orphanage.

It is home to over 170 children aged between 7 and 15 years old. "It is like a five-star hotel among local houses which are fighting against poverty," Meryem says.

For three years now, she has been spending her holidays and religious festivals away from her family. "It is difficult, yes, but priceless. The happiness in the eyes of orphans when they see us is priceless."

Meryem is now planning to be a helping hand for those in need in Bangladesh or Ethiopia.

"Africa is a continent of poverty," she says. "Nevertheless, I could see that children in the orphanage were not greedy at all. Once, I took some nuts from Turkey to share with them. To my surprise, each of the children took only one piece of nut, which is strange. Because, we Turks generally take a handful of nuts when offered."

"When I saw the people in need outside of Turkey, I questioned my understanding of poverty. It is totally different from our country. Even the most needy people in Turkey have something, but they do not have anything."

IHH donor and volunteer Muhammad Kinali, 49, agrees with her.

"The gap between the needy in Turkey and those in poorer countries is just like the gap between the rich and the poor in Turkey," Muhammad claims.

He has traveled to Pakistan in 2010, Bosnia and Herzegovina in 2014, and this year to Bangladesh to help Rohingya Muslims who have been living as unregistered refugees in camps.

"Police prevented us from delivering our humanitarian aid to them," he claimed. "We could hardly manage to reach the needy to give them both in-kind and in-cash aid. We had also taken some tents for them, which were suitable for the climate conditions."

Muhammad, a father to four children, also recounted his time in a home for orphans in Pakistan.

Once, he slept alongside an orphan boy "who tightly hugged me, and fell asleep in my arms". "Those times were very difficult," he adds.

"The biggest motivation for us, when helping the needy abroad, is to see them happy and smiling," he says.

"And the hardest part is the fact that we, as the aid workers, have to hide our sadness over their pain and carry a smiling face all the time. Otherwise, they may lose their hope and belief in goodness."

He is planning to visit an African country for humanitarian work during the coming Muslim festival of Eid al-Adha, which will be observed in September.

Turkey ranks third in amount of aid provided, after the U.S. and the U.K., in the list of countries with the most international humanitarian work in 2012 and 2013, Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency, TIKA, says in its "Turkish Development Assistance 2013" report.

According to another 2013 Global Humanitarian Assistance report, the top five donors are the U.S. with $3.8 billion, followed by EU institutions with $1.9 billion, the U.K. $1.2 billion, Turkey $1.0 billion, and Sweden with $784 million.

The top five recipients are Ethiopia, Afghanistan, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, Somalia, and Pakistan, the report says.

Turkey has carried out humanitarian work across over 40 countries in four continents to help those in need after an earthquake, or flood, fire, civil war, famine hit a region, the Turkish Disaster and Emergency Management Authority (AFAD) says. Since April 2011, the country has also offered accommodation to thousands of Syrians who left their country after the onset of civil unrest.

In May 2015, AFAD was in Djibouti where more than 150,000 displaced Yemenis were grappling with harsh living conditions.

"We are everywhere regardless of people's religion, language, and ethnicity, which is a prerequisite for humanitarian work," stresses Hamza Ozkilic, chairman of AFAD's Humanitarian Aid Working Group.

AFAD boasts a core team, whose members, on average in their late twenties, are responsible for the humanitarian work.

AFAD sometimes carries out humanitarian work with the Turkish Red Crescent, the largest humanitarian organization in Turkey, he says. "Comparing Turkish charities with the others in regions we go to, ours are faster in giving better responses to needs."

"The character of Turkish people who have a natural feeling to help the others is mostly enough to be motivated for our humanitarian work," Ozkilic stresses.

A doctor and mother Zehra Baltaci, 39, has been donating to the Humanitarian Relief Foundation (IHH) for 10 years, and has been actively taking part in humanitarian work for the last five months.

Along with a group of working women, she supports various humanitarian projects of the foundation. The female volunteers discuss among themselves how they can contribute to the ongoing projects abroad like orphan care, water wells, the construction of mosques for instance.

In 2015's holy Ramadan month, she spent seven days in Pattani province of Thailand -- a difficult trip, she says.

A group of four women and four men worked tirelessly trying to meet the needs of the most vulnerable Thai Muslims.

"It was a gift to me," Zehra stresses. "I am a doctor and I love people. I have to use my knowledge helping the needy, not only my patients at the hospital."

She says she has always been aware of what is going on around the world, and what difficulties people are facing.

"It is vital that the work of humanitarian aid organizations is supported by volunteers," she says. "Investment in people is the most significant thing."

Turkey's official development assistance has increased every year from $85 million in 2002 to $3.3 billion in 2013, the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency, or TIKA, has reported.

Of the total Turkish official development assistance in 2013, 49 percent was reported as humanitarian aid.

Durmus Aydin, IHH deputy chairman, pointed to Turkey's "rising importance" regarding humanitarian aid "especially in the last 10 years", adding: "The religion, language, and ethnicity of a person in need cannot be questioned. This is our fundamental policy."

The IHH is one of the biggest aid foundations in Turkey, which has around 100,000 volunteers of all ages.

The total amount of money donated to the IHH for aid works was over 400 million Turkish liras ($138 million) in 2014. "It changes a lot depending on how much the aid work is promoted and encouraged through the media," Aydin says.

He calls on every NGO and state institution to embrace the first-ever World Humanitarian Summit, a UN initiative, which is to take place in Istanbul on May 23-24, 2016.

"It is a source of pride for Turkey, and a sign showing the importance attached by Turkey regarding humanitarian work," Ozkilic from AFAD says.

Representatives of around 200 countries are expected to attend the summit in 2016, from the Middle East and Southeast Asia to the Caucasus and Africa.

Last Modified: 2015-08-20 08:44:17
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