NGO work is still not considered as a profession in Turkey, says head of an NGO
Suffering from Familial Mediterranean Fever (FMF) since her youth Ebru Uygun never let this illness get in front of her work. When she suffered from serious health complication due to FMF, she wrote a book based on her experience in the hospital. Uygun has also authored several books on NGO activities. HÜRRİYET photo, Levent ARSLANThe culture of volunteering is still not developed in Turkey, according to Ebru Uygun, the founder and head of TOÇEV, a nongovernmental organization (NGO) dedicated to improving children’s access to education. While they have many volunteers working for them, Uygun preferred to work with professionals in TOÇEV, which is celebrating its 20th year this December. “NGO work is still not considered as a full-fledged profession in Turkey,” says Uygun who adds one of hers aim is to raise awareness on this issue as well.
What is the story of TOÇEV?
When I was 11 or 12, I was asked to go to Darülaceze [a historic foundation for the needy] to speak with an elderly women, who wanted to practice German. But I came across children there and I became more interested in helping children. As I went to Switzerland to study, I worked at a foreign charity foundation and saw that a lot of financial assistance came there from Turkey. I was very impressed. At that time, obligatory education was only five years in Turkey. I really envied those who graduated from vocational schools in Europe; to see a hairdresser, for instance, with a high school diploma. That’s how I thought of establishing a foundation. I wanted to create the proper environment the children deserved. But I also wanted to create awareness: My purpose was not just to help. My family did not support me and actually it’s good that they did not, because it could have stayed limited in scale. The foundation reached its 20th year with strangers’ total support to me.
How did it start?
We started with 10 friends of mine [five are still with us] and five children. I first visited the existing NGOs at that time and found out what I really wanted to do. My purpose was to support children without separating them from their families. I thought they should grow with the love of their family. So we aim at covering all of the children’s expenses; from education to health, including mental health, without giving money to the family, because the families might not know how to use it properly. We are in touch with the children on a one-on-one basis. We started generating money by selling clothes in the markets. We started to establish the criteria to choose the children and we were also finding out how a foundation worked.
What were the stages you went through?
TOÇEV was founded in 1994. We started getting press attention as we organized some fashion show with the contribution of popular people. In 1996, I became familiar with HABITAT 2 (the Second United Nations Conference on Human Settlements which was held in Istanbul). That gave us the opportunity to meet international NGOs. I was saddened that Turkey was not active in fulfilling its commitments to children’s rights. In 2011, I, together with TOÇEV, became the coordinator for the children’s rights coalition. That got us into touch with the UNICEF, which made us more knowledgeable on preparing projects and campaigns.
A visit to 1998 to Tunceli and 2001 to Southeast Anatolia were also important turning points for TOÇEV’s activities in Anatolia. We started the project to renovate schools in the villages. By 2005, we started to launch social responsibility projects with private sector companies, projects that were for instance on first aid, or oral hygiene. We are currently one of the few NGOs that bring the state together with the private sector. By our 20th year, we were able to touch the lives of 5 million children.
With 2010, we started a serious institutionalization. We also wanted to show that an NGO can be also a place for a career. For, since the first day, I worked with professionals. If you think big and want to do it full time, you need to work with professionals. We wanted to raise awareness about NGO culture. This is still a concept that is not well understood in Turkey.
Can you tell us more about the model you endorsed for your essential mission.
We are, in a way, helping the family by holding their hands. The children start with us by the age of six and we follow them until they graduate from university. The children sort of grow with us. We are periodically in touch with the children; we have periodic workshops; their mental development is equally important for us. We try to orient them to the right activities, be it sports or art.
This requires one-on-one contact with the children.
We have around 1,000 children within this model. But we reach out to 5 million children with other projects that we undertake.
In your view what is the key to your success?
To make the right observations; to spot the right needs and find solutions to what is needed and do this together with the people. Being systematic, making plans and thinking long-term are also important. To be genuine about touching people’s lives, to be transparent, avoiding to exploit and abuse and finally to believe in what you are doing are essential.
What are your general observations about education after 20 years of experience?
There are some positive developments, as well as some problems remaining the same. When I started, I was worried about compulsory education being only five years. It was finally extended to 12 years only a few years ago. This shows that we are still slow on certain things. But there are also some very positive developments. First of all, families are very much aware of the importance of education. They come to us with great appreciation; whereas at the beginning, we used to force families to get in touch with us. The state is also much more attentive. When you approach the state with an issue, they provide an immediate reply; whereas in the past, they would not even let NGO representatives in the door, let alone listen to them. All of our projects are conducted with the Education Ministry.
What is, in your view, the most important issue with education in Turkey?
My personal obsession is vocational schools. There are too many universities. But vocational schools are equally important. We have a big, young generation; we should also orient them toward arts and sports; vocational schools are a way to do that.
What do you think about the development of the concept of NGOs in Turkey?
It has only been developing recently. We could have progressed in a much quicker way. We don’t have a professional approach to the issue. There is still room for development.
What’s the problem?
NGO work is still not accepted as a full-fledged profession in Turkey. People think of NGO activities as a way to clear the conscience.
What is the situation in Turkey as far as volunteering is concerned?
It is still not at a level I would dream of. It is developing slowly. In the U.S., for instance, an unemployed person works as a volunteer until he or she finds a job; in Turkey he or she sits at home and watches TV. This is also due to our education system. We need to inject that culture starting from elementary school.
Yet we Turks think we are very keen on lending a helping hand.
Turkish people are very helpful. But they are not systematic. This is the problem. We are trying to create that system.
Who is Ebru Uygun ?
Ebru Uygun was born in 1971, Istanbul. She completed the Austrian High School and then graduated from the department of Marketing-Economy at Webster University in Switzerland. She was a volunteer for two years at the Christian Children’s Foundation in Switzerland. Upon her return to Turkey, she established TOÇEV in 1994 and is still the head of the foundation.
She is a member of the board at the Elpa Textile Company, vice chairman of the Artists Supporters Foundation, vice chairman of the FMF Foundation and chairman of ISIL Education Foundation. She has written four books: “Room with the number 102” (2005), “The Hearts that I Touch” (2006), “Growing Together” (2009)” and “River of Hearts” (2013). “The Hearts that I Touch” was taken by the Education Ministry and used in primary schools. She also became an Eisenhower fellow in 2010.