An Australian Agricultural Scientist based in Turkey, Dr. Sinan Oğun, understands the amount of Syrian refugees crossing the Turkish border has created issues for both communities; Syrians need support and the Turkish economy must provide.
“There is a huge influx of refugees (Syrian) coming across the border. They are placed in refugee camps and have a negative impact on the local community from an economic sense and from a cultural sense,” said Dr. Oğun, coordinator of the Middle East Sustainable Livestock Production, Bio-technology, Agro-Ecology Research and Development Centre at Zirve University.
In response the scientist has created a solution to help mend both of these issues. He has initiated a farming project where Syrians will be able to produce themselves their immediate emergency food aid needs for the refugee camps, while being trained on how to farm animal production sustainably, as well as being given the opportunity to become a shareholder in the system for post-war redevelopment back in Syria. All of this will achieve an outcome that hopes to minimises some of the immediate pressures on the local community and economy.
The solution is the ‘Centre of Excellence’ programme, which has the financial backing of an Australian mining company and will engage both the local Turkish and Syrian communities to achieve positive results.
It is a project that tackles what is termed the ‘Syrian crises’ with a solution that involves the Turkish government, Australian government, United Nations, NGO’s, Corporate industry, both Syrian and Turkish community members and an enterprising agricultural scientist. The project has also gained notable support from Australian Ambassador to Turkey Mr James Larsen and humanitarian agencies from the European Union.
Dr. Oğun, whose background is in sustainable agricultural development, explained the initiative will change the way Turkey is viewed from the west; “from being a region with political turmoil to a nation that provides creative solutions for difficult problems”.
In what he describes as “unusual in humanitarian aid relief”, he is developing a model where “refugees go from being needy and dependant individuals to self sustaining and productive communities all within the same set of parameters”.
The Syrian refugees in this particular context will receive Australian accredited training and education at a ‘Centre of Excellence’ in established sheep and goat farms near the Turkish-Syrian border. While the farms will be providing immediate protein needs for the nearby camp residents, they will also be breeding livestock herds for Syria’s future food security.
Numerous aid agencies are taking interest in Dr. Oğun’s project which he has termed ‘Livestock Aid’ and wanting to become an active player in this sustainable initiative.
“Syrians are necessarily, yet unsustainably, being fed through emergency aid,” the research scientist has said. “All they need is a bit of land and a few donated animals and I will teach and empower them to look after themselves, freeing up Turkish resources which are being depleted and fueling the crises,” Dr. Oğun continued.
In response, for the pilot project the Turkish government has agreed to provide more land, Red Rock Minerals, a mining company from Australia who is operating mines in the region will provide financial assistance and Dr. Oğun will provide the know-how and training. Various UN supported aid agencies are going to provide additional livestock as the project develops.
Red Rock Minerals Executive Director Cumali Arslan promised their “mining company will put a portion of money from their regional plant to keep the farm and the education and training centre running until the crises is over”.
Australian Ambassador to Turkey Mr James Larsen is also very pleased and impressed with this initiative, which has been developed by an Australian scientist and has Australian Corporate backing.
Australia-Turkey relations have a solid foundation and a very significant past, especially on the 100th anniversary commemorating the Gallipoli war in 2015.
Mr Larsen said Australia and Turkey also have “a lot to share in agricultural research and expertise” and mentioned “sustainability is key to Australia’s agricultural story”. He also added the Centre of Excellence “is a terrific initiative which will make a real difference to farming methods and productivity in Gaziantep and the wider region”.
Mr Larsen is confident the project “will provide both opportunity and hope for young Syrians” and says he is looking “forward to seeing this important initiative first hand”.
A research pilot farm project has already had a positive impact on the lives of 19 Syrians, completed under the umbrella of Zirve University, a private university that first founded the Middle East Research Centre.
The Syrian refugees involved in the pilot group now own animals from the trial period and are breeding them in Turkey to hopefully take back with them to their Syrian farms after the war.
Dr. Oğun spoke about a man from the initial test group; “The young father of two was looking for work. He understood animals, and was sympathetic to their needs. I invited him to work on the farm project with the hope that he would one day own his own herd back on the Syrian plains. His Turkish was sufficient to understand the training and even his English grew as he gained more interest in topics related to animal husbandry. He is now my best vaccinator of the sheep and lambs.”
Every Friday he would escape back to Syria through the border with his weekly wage and some meat to feed his family before returning back to work on the Monday morning, and “always with a smile despite what he must have felt leaving his family behind in such bedlam,” Dr. Oğun explained, “I guess it was because the farm was providing him some hope”. Dr. Oğun continued with the story; “It was not long before the man saved enough money to rent a place near the farm and was then able to bring his family and children into Turkey, which in turn gave me hope!”.
‘Hocam’ meaning ‘my teacher’ in English, as Dr. Oğun is often referred to by all his students and trainees, describes the stories from the south-east region as “heart wrenching”. He recalled when he saw a person feeding a hungry dog on the side of the road, where he knew the man was hungry himself. He discussed the potential for the farming project to assist people in these situations.
“With the ‘Centre of Excellence’ education programme we are helping to transform someone who is incredibly dependant to someone who now has power and capacity,” he added.
The project has developed a positive energy among the farmers who are now in a position to think of a more solid future and even begin to develop business dreams.
“They think the war will be over in three years. They tell me they want to set up a factory where they can milk the animals and produce a certain type of cheese that is only done in Syria, brand it and start selling it,” Dr. Oğun said.
He cannot believe “it has gone from ‘will we live through next week’ to ‘let’s set up a cheese factory!”’.
Angus cows and both dorper and marino sheep were exported from Australia to Turkey for the education farms. Although, initially describing the requirements of these special breeds proved quite challenging. “It wasn’t easy. It was difficult getting someone new sets of skills,” he explained. “The way they handle animals is different to what I was suggesting. They are into large herding. I am into very high animal welfare.”
This is Dr. Sinan Oğun’s second year in the region and he is very optimistic about the future of the programme. He says that “within three months the Syrian refugees, whether with or without a farming background, develop sufficient skills to work unsupervised”, which then allows time to make other Aid applications for other farming projects specifically focused on the local Turkish rural communities.
The Agricultural Centre of Excellence programme is currently preparing for its launch.
“To me science or knowledge is not valuable unless it can be applied to improve human endeavour and resillience. This project is showing me that result, and I’m really excited,” Dr. Oğun concluded.
Written by Sheldon Heyes
Sheldon Heyes is an Australian journalist and lifestyle writer for Turkey. He has previously contributed articles to various Australian and Turkish magazines and websites, including Istanbul Timeout, HomeArt Istanbul, Yabangee.com and Gallipoligames.com. He currently publishes lifestyle features on his own branding ‘Istanbul in ink’ at www.sheldonheyes.com and is zooming around the globe at 38,000 feet in the pages of Turkish Airlines inflight magazine ‘Skylife’.