Scores of grassroots networks now exist to deliver food and supplies to people in need.
As our regular readers know, TOL normally does not cover Turkey, unless an issue concerns one of the countries we do cover in post-communist Central and Eastern Europe and Eurasia. However, through the fall and perhaps beyond, we are making an exception because of the dire situation faced by many journalists in Turkey since the attempted coup in 2016. After that dramatic event, almost 200 media outlets were closed down and scores of critically minded journalists lost their jobs and now struggle to eke out an existence. We are proud to provide some international exposure to many of these Turkish reporters and expand, at least for now, our mission of supporting independent journalism and the freedom of the media to this fascinating and important part of the world.
In the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, Nagehan Tokdogan posted a note at the entrance to her apartment block in Ankara.
“I can shop for neighbours over the age of 65 … feel free to ask for help at number 7,” it read.
Tokdogan, an academic researcher, came up with the idea when she saw an elderly neighbour struggling with shopping bags on her way to the local market; at the time, those over 65 had been put under strict curfew.
“We need small but effective means of social solidarity,” Tokdogan wrote on Twitter later that day, attaching a photograph of her note. The tweet went viral, prompting other users to put up similar notes in their own apartment blocks.
Tokdogan said that ordinary people needed to take the initiative in such times of crisis, adding, “In order to create an atmosphere of solidarity, we need to show examples of it.”
Like in other parts of the world, a range of grassroots initiatives have sprung up across Turkey to help people where the state has been unable or unwilling to support them amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Traditional practices – such as paying in advance for items at bakeries for those who can’t afford them – have become more popular, while scores of volunteer networks now exist to deliver food and supplies to people in need. Even well-known chefs at some of Istanbul’s most exclusive restaurants are running solidarity kitchens, with volunteers supplying free food to health workers and poor families.
In early April, food critic Ebru Erke and chef Umut Karakus set up Stay Safe, initially to provide food for over-65s. Working from a kitchen provided by the local council in Istanbul’s Fenerbahce neighbourhood, volunteer chefs make two meals a day for 1,200 people. Once the food is cooked, it is packaged and distributed to people who have registered with the municipality.
“At the beginning, we limited ourselves to people over 65, but many other people were in need,” Erke said. “A group of construction workers couldn’t get back to their hometown, so we brought them a meal. Health workers were staying in a hotel, so we brought them food, too.”
Staying Busy Even When Closed
The Ficcin restaurant, in the central Istanbul neighbourhood of Beyoglu, is also providing aid. Leyla Kilic, one of Ficcin’s founding partners, said that they decided to use their resources to feed those in need after the government ordered restaurants closed. Friends of the restaurant donated money to help cover expenses.
“We don’t have massive amounts of cash but we are trying to support poor migrant families and healthcare workers,” Kilic said. “We have oil, flour, fresh vegetables – and our kitchen.”
At first, Ficcin cooked for staff at three hospitals who were assigned to treat COVID-19 patients, focusing on night-shift workers who were unable to buy food because shops were closed. Like Erke and Karakus, they have since been feeding other healthcare workers and groups of refugees, via a migrants’ aid organisation. At Ramadan, Kilic said, Ficcin distributed dishes for sahur, the meal consumed early in the morning before fasting, and iftar, the evening meal that ends the daily fast.
Mehmet Ufuk Ozcan, a sociologist at Istanbul University, said that the coronavirus pandemic had increased stress, fear, and anxiety in many, creating a “narrowed world” in which people limited social contact and engagement.
He noted that solidarity initiatives and other aid efforts tended to take place on a local or individual level.
“It is hard to find examples of long-term, sustainable, and effective solidarity in civil society,” he continued, warning that temporary aid initiatives were no substitute for larger-scale political solutions.
“These limited practices don’t represent a truly collective solution,” Ozcan said. “There’s no individual solution to a global problem.”
But Kilic said that while local initiatives could not address larger, structural inequalities, grassroots responses still played an important role.
She noted that the volunteer effort had built close ties between her colleagues and the surrounding community.
“There were already some families who were in need that we have been trying to help for years, but this period taught us how to reach them, how to develop strong relationships, and how to make this aid sustainable,” she said. “Whatever we do, we know that it won’t be enough, and of course it would be more efficient if this aid was provided by the government. But as long as these kinds of initiatives exist, we will support them. Our kitchen is open.”