In a tangerine orchard in Mızraklı, one of the many mountainous villages in Turkey’s southern Hatay province, Yeliz Yoğun sat next to a burn pit rolling yufka – Turkish flatbreads – for her mother, Sabah, to bake.
On this summer morning, the temperature was already high while standing under the trees, away from the fire, and the sun was not at its highest yet. Sabah was sitting next to the flame but was determined to finish all the dough they had prepared since the first light of the day. An NGO called Dünya Evimiz (“The World Is Our Home”), provides Yeliz and Sabah with donated flour as part of a program to distribute free yufka or tandır bread baked by women to people living in tent camps around Hatay. The women who produce the bread receive a small income, but even small earnings are crucial for Yeliz and her family.
“Am I tired? Of course I am. I am exhausted,” said Yeliz Yoğun while preparing one of the final flatbreads. She rolled the dough, then effortlessly whirled it around her wooden stick. “But I wish we had more. More yufka means more money. The upcoming winter scares me. Life in a tent is difficult, and earning money as well. I wish we had more opportunities to rebuild our lives. We want to produce.”
The February 6, 2023 earthquakes that struck southeastern Turkey killed more than 50,000 people and left nearly 3 million displaced and in need of shelter. Yeliz Yoğun and her family were among the survivors, yet their homes were heavily damaged – they have been living in a tent for almost eight months.
Hatay – the province in which they have spent their whole lives – is one of the areas most affected by the earthquakes, and lost not only many lives, but also almost a third of its population to displacement. Since accommodation options are limited in the city center, many people who stayed relocated to rural areas.
Summer temperatures can reach 40 degrees in the province, and there were already concerns about the conditions winter will bring for people in temporary sheltering options such as shipping containers or tents in July. Another problem for Hatay residents was the lack of job opportunities, further prohibiting their ability to return to their normal lives. Hundreds of thousands in Hatay are still dependent on aid and donations.
Yeliz Yoğun, her mother Sabah, and their neighbor and relative Dilan Yoğun believe they are lucky, even though life in the makeshift conditions in Mızraklı, a 30-minute drive away from Antakya, the capital city of Hatay, is difficult. Baking flatbread means an income, small but steady.
This particular flatbread is an important staple in the Turkish kitchen. Especially in the Hatay province, the tandır (tandoor) oven takes a central place in the culinary tradition. Most people prefer this bread over the white loaf that is more common in the rest of Turkey.
Throughout villages and cities, you can find communal tandır ovens, where people can cook their dough, meat, or other products that need to be baked, and in some houses, people have their own private tandırs in their backyards. Many stone ovens survived the earthquakes, and it was one of the first ways people were able to bake bread again.
Lacking a stone oven, Yeliz Yoğun and her coworkers bake the bread over a fire pit in the garden of the orchard, where she also set up her temporary home.
The 45-year-old Yoğun lives here with her immediate family and other relatives. “The biggest problems are the toilet and bathroom,” Yoğun told us during a July visit, while showing the basic set-ups they arranged for those essential needs. Inside a tent, the family installed a shower basin removed from their old house to bathe with water heated on the open fire outside.
In a remote village with limited potential customers, the help they got from Dünya Evimiz provides the only sale channel for the women to sell bread. Yoğun and the others bake around 150 flatbreads every day, using a sack of flour provided by Dünya Evimiz. The NGO conducts daily pickups of the fresh bread and brings it to distribution points in Hatay.
The bakers earn 150 Turkish liras (US $5.6) for their daily efforts, which takes from dawn to around 11 in the morning. The net daily minimum wage is 380 liras in Turkey. Yoğun’s daily income is not even half of that, yet this job is one of few opportunities for families in a place with such limited resources. Being a part of the new NGO’s efforts “makes one feel useful,” said Yoğun.
Yeliz and Dilan Yoğun’s husbands – who are brothers – were long-distance truck drivers before the earthquakes. Both men are now looking for new jobs since they don’t want to leave their families alone.
“My husband was at the Bulgarian border when the earthquake happened,” Dilan recalled, her daughter watching and hugging her while she rolled the dough.
“He doesn’t want something similar to happen when he is away again,” Dilan said. “He wants to stay with us, but job opportunities are limited. The yufka money is our only income for now.”
According to the report published by the Economic Policy Research Foundation of Turkey (TEPAV) and compiled from Turkey’s employment data, with 70,000 jobs gone, Hatay ranks second-highest in loss of job opportunities. It means more than a third of the pre-quake employment is gone, comparing the first five months of 2023 to the previous year.
Hüseyin Yayman, a member of the National Assembly of Türkiye from Hatay of Turkey’s AKP political party, said that the city’s economy was mainly dependent on “3-T” before the earthquakes: tarım, turizm, taşımacılık in Turkish, meaning agriculture, tourism, and transportation. All of those sectors were hit hard by the devastation.
Yeliz Yoğun’s family grows fruits and vegetables in their orchard. Prior to earthquakes, the sale of produce and goods like tomato paste or pomegranate syrup they produced contributed to the family’s income, another financial resource that has been lost.
“The earthquake happened during the harvest time. Tangerines dropped from the trees during the tremors and were wasted,” said Yoğun. “We also needed to open our greenhouse [as a shelter] to neighbors who did not have anywhere else to go. Almost all of our crops got destroyed.”
Still, they re-planted some tomatoes, peppers, and cucumbers. Yoğun aims to be able to produce delicacies with long shelf life, like tomato sauce or baba ganoush, a Levantine appetizer with eggplants also popular in Hatay, to create some additional income.
After the 150 flatbreads were finished, Yoğun was not done yet, and insisted on preparing us an extensive breakfast.
The first treat she prepared was salçalı ekmek. Taking one of the fresh flatbreads, Yoğun made a mix of salça (homemade tomato paste) and olive oil, rubbing it all over the bread before putting the folded bread back on the fire.
For the baba ganoush, Yoğun took tomatoes, eggplants and pepper and set them amid the burning coals. She flipped them with her bare hands. After the vegetables were slightly charred, mother Sabah removed the peels, and cut the vegetables into small pieces. With a generous splash of olive oil, it made one of the best baba ganoush we have ever tried.
One problem in selling these homemade goods is the province’s not-yet-recovered courier services. Limited numbers of courier companies have carried on their services in Hatay, and more than seven months after the earthquakes, they continue to face issues with delivery times and network, especially in the more rural areas like Mızraklı.
Another obstacle for Yoğun and other women who want to create income while producing is not knowing where to sell their products, even if they find a way to ship them.
According to Samet Uslu from Dünya Evimiz, one of the best ways to help people in the earthquake region is to create opportunities to be self-sufficient. In the case of women in the villages, this involves fixing the local logistical problems and opening new channels of sale.
“Women here don’t want anyone’s charity or donation,” he said. “They want to have a way to earn money. But we have limited resources. If we can create more tools for them to introduce their products, we can help them to stand on their own feet.”
Seren Meriç, who moved in next door to her parents in Mızraklı after losing her home in the earthquakes, agreed with Uslu. “Instead of sending aid, we need help to make our lives sustainable,” she said.
Meriç came to Yoğun’s garden to ask if there were any available “yufka-jobs.” She was working in a telecommunication store before February, but with her workplace and her home destroyed, she looked for a job that she could do in the village.
“She is not the only one,” Yoğun said. “Every day, women from the village come here to ask for a job. The earthquake made all of us equals; we all lost everything. People try to find ways to replace what they used to have. People want to produce. We just need some help to get started.”
To contact Dünya Evimiz about donations, please visit their Instagram.
(Editor’s Note: As part of our commitment to documenting Turkey’s post-earthquake recovery, we have teamed up with Turkey Recap (Tr), a superb newsletter covering Turkish affairs, to jointly publish articles with reporting by Tr correspondents from some of the hardest hit areas. The pieces will run on both of our sites, with CB providing financial support for the reporting.)
Published on September 26, 2023