Diary of a volunteer

Diary of a volunteer

Diary of a volunteer

As soon as the shock of the earthquake hit, people from all over the country mobilized to help. One of the most urgent aids was food aid. While chefs were trying to set up kitchens in the earthquake zone, there were also many people who rushed to help with their own means. Some were there almost from day one, some needed time to get the needed food and equipment. On the evening of Feb. 15, the same message was dropped to two WhatsApp groups I was part of. The DBB (Natural Food, Conscious Nutrition) producer to consumer network and the Slow Food Türkiye group. The message was from Mustafa Alper Ülgen, a producer from Bayramiç, Çanakkale and also the Slow Food Ida leader, and was intended to inform both groups that they were going to the disaster zone to help with trucks full of food. The relief aid reaching from Çanakkale to Hatay, practically from one end of the country to the other end was an example of the power of volunteers. He wrote:

“Yesterday, we bought cheese, jam, olive oil and fuel with the contributions made by Slow Food Ida members. We loaded semolina, tarhana and bulgur from our mill. I’m leaving soon. I will join the aid convoy in Bayramiç. We have about 1,400 km to travel. Our destination is the tent city of Bayramiç and Ayvacık municipalities in Defne, Hatay. I will work in the kitchen there. My motivation and energy are in place.”

For the ones who don’t know, Bayramiç and Ayvacık are two small districts of Çanakkale, at the very western tip of Türkiye, in the Troas peninsula where the site of Troy and the mythological Mount Ida is. Despite the limited means of these two humble municipalities, the volunteer convoy was well stocked, and all the people in the convoy were heading to a faraway corner of the country they’ve never been before. The next message came from the end of a long and difficult 1,400 km journey. It was saying that they had arrived safely in Defne. and joined the camp kitchen. Ülgen kept everyone informed day by day, step by step, with his warm heartfelt messages. The message we received on the fourth day made us all smile:

“There are more children on the streets. It is as if the birds have returned, or I have started to notice the birds singing. I turned 53 yesterday, I had rice pudding in the evening as a birthday cake. Cooking, spending time with children, chatting with the beautiful and colorful people here, working with my friends from Bayramiç, starting early in the morning and working until late, serving people in need and making them smile was the best birthday present for me.”

To admit, we were addicted to the wholehearted messages.

“Today is our fifth day and I am trying to write these notes to you between meals. Our team has increased to 32 people. We are cooking for about 700 people. 200 people are from our tent city, about 200 soldiers and policemen, and the rest are people from the neighborhood. The number of people eating is growing every day because our kitchen serves a good variety of food that is really very tasty. Soldiers, police and other officials from 81 provinces work in the city. We also provide hot meals for them. In our neighborhood, the return to the city has accelerated. A local said today: ‘Your presence reassures us, I had sent my children to Mersin, I brought them back, and many of my neighbors have called their families back.’ Our team is doing a good job. There are wood cutters, carpenters, welders, electricians, plumbers, cleaners, storekeepers, tea makers, drivers, tent supervisors, kitchen crew, and many others. So much so that the technical team even goes to external works. We respond to demand from both the neighborhood and other settlements. Darıca Municipality vehicles and staff collect the garbage, Gebze Municipality has put garbage containers, Muğla Forest organization fills our tanks twice a day, we have received bottled water from Istanbul Metropolitan and Kocaeli Municipalities. Today a vehicle from Bayramiç set off, bringing everyone’s personal needs and the urgent needs of this place. There are many things to tell. It will take time for life to return to normal here, even if what we do is like a drop in the ocean, it is very important that we at least give people confidence. I always believe, there are no problems, there are solutions.”

The reader may not locate easily all the mentioned municipalities on the map, but they are all from faraway regions, the Aegean coast in Marmara region. Just when the things were getting better, then came two more earthquakes, right in the district they were in helping out people. Ülgen’s description of the last earthquake was calm, reassuring us that they will never gave up, and going back was not even an option.

“Today is our eighth day. The shock of the last earthquake has started to subside. We had an activity for children after lunch. Yesterday we finished the sewage connection of the last mobile WCs that arrived. The work in the kitchen never stops and the number of people coming to eat is constantly increasing. Meanwhile, people living in Defne started to bring us pepper pastes, pickles and turnip juices they made themselves. Milk was already coming. People are very grateful. Just now a woman from a nearby village came to buy medicine and said something very striking: ‘We want to stay here and be self-sufficient, the district governorship is of no help, I cannot find flour, they only gave me pasta. There is no place to buy food with money nearby. They are making it difficult for us to stay here. If we want to leave, they’ll send us right away for free. When you offer us this opportunity here, you give us the will and confidence to stay here.’ Anyway, our Robin Hood team made two trips today and brought a lot of food and other necessities to the camp. In the meantime, we are also directing the Ayvacık team that will come after us. So that the service here can continue without a hitch. We are tired, but we are very happy.”

Meanwhile DBB producers and Slow Food Conviviums from across the country kept connecting in WhatsApp groups, figuring out what is needed where, and kept sending as much help as possible, both to the camp in Defne, and to other volunteer groups in the disaster zone. There were also discussion groups to turn the emergency aid into a long-term support project. The producers of DBB started to think about sharing their long-term experience, production and solidarity models with rural producers in the earthquake zone and supporting them in rebuilding their livelihood. The Slow Food movement continues its relief work in the spirit of solidarity, and with the support of the international organization, it is trying to develop more long-term aid projects in the countryside.

Ülgen’s sincere messages showed us a truth. On his way back, he was carrying Daphne seedlings, the signature plant of Defne district, hence the name. Daphne symbolizes immortality, and in Turkish culture handing laurel branch is a sign peace and solidarity. If volunteer help from one end of the country to the other 1,400 kilometers away in a spirit of solidarity can heal such bleeding wounds, there is hope for a better future.

Aylin Öney Tan,