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Making a Difference as an Expat in Turkey

By Amanda van Mulligen

Summary: Amanda Mulligen introduces us to an amazing expat, Figen Cakir, a British woman who moved to Turkey determined to make a difference in Goluk, Turkey. Figen's aim is for locals to make the most of their traditions and artisanal skills to give them a way to rebuild the livelihoods that were shattered a decade ago by an earthquake.

Inspirational Expats - Making a Difference as an Expat in Turkey

Some expats move overseas determined to make a difference to their adopted community. British born Figen Cakir is one such expat. She's using her art and design skills to help the local community of Goluk in Turkey with a project called ‘Giftware with a Conscience'. Figen's aim is for locals to make the most of their traditions and artisanal skills to give them a way to rebuild the livelihoods that were shattered a decade ago by an earthquake.

With a magnitude of 7.6, the earthquake devastated the Golcuk region in August 1999. The events spanning thirty-seven seconds killed thousands and left 600,000 homeless. So many of the community that makes up Figen's home lost loved ones, the roofs over their heads, and their source of income.

"Not one single person got away unscathed; from a lost arm to a lost child, everyone has a story to share," Figen tells. She too experienced the earthquake and recalls it vividly,

"It was an incredibly hot August night. Around 3am I was woken by my bed bucking in the air. I barely made it to my daughters' room. We didn't realise it was an earthquake - we initially thought we were being bombed from above as we could hear what sounded like air raid sirens. It turned out to be hundreds of car alarms going off."

The devastation around her was shocking.

"The apartments across the street were no longer there and that it was literally snowing concrete dust. Then the unforgettable screams, cries for help and lamentations began everywhere," Figen recalls.

Figen and her family counted themselves lucky. Despite the earthquake destroying all of their possessions and causing slight injuries they lived to tell the tale. But it might have been so different.

"Two thirds of the town had disappeared. When I walked around later, I saw that the road in front of our home was split wide open – our five-storey apartment had missed instant collapse by just a few yards. I saw the epicentre of an earthquake just half a mile away from my home," she says emotionally.

Affected deeply by the trauma of the night, Figen left her husband in Turkey and returned to the UK for a year with her daughter. Commuting proved draining and the bond she felt with Turkey drew her back. However, the temporary emigration had given her a fresh perspective and renewed energy. She set about helping those who had lost their livelihood in the earthquake.

Figen put her art and design background to work and set up her own business. She commissioned local women to make her designs using only natural, local or handmade materials and then sold them on Etsy.com, the online marketplace for handmade goods.

"The local community turned their focus to their skills and crafts much more after the earthquake to find new avenues of work. I tried to bring people a fresh way of looking at how they could make an income," clarifies Figen.

Changing the mindset was an essential element of Figen's role as local women easily overlooked their arts and crafts skills as a means of providing an income for their household.

She recently realised that the support she has given local women over the years had become disorganised and the logistics and financial control had become problematic as the scope and scale of her assistance expanded.

"When I saw a friend of mine use a funding website for a project, everything clicked into place," she says. "The realisation of this project will give structure to what I am doing."

Figen's goal is clear: she wants to create a workshop fronted by a shop to provide a central place for local artisans and craftspeople to gather. The physical presence of a shop, plus a planned website with international shipping, is an important part of the project if local artisans are to achieve an income to support their families.

"Like the still-present gaps in the landscape, there are huge gaps in people's lives. There are a lot of women who are crafting at home industriously yet who are struggling to find outlets for their work. This project will create more women entrepreneurs and feed the local economy," explains Figen.

Not only does Figen want to help individuals in her local community to develop the skills and means of selling their products so they can support themselves, she also wants to fight the flood of Chinese products in the local wares market. She explains,

"My primary markets are the affluent local districts. I want to get people's focus back to domestic produce. They need to return to buying safe, quality items whilst simultaneously helping their own community and reviving traditional arts."

She envisions an informal place where artisans can bring their concepts or work, brainstorm together but also a place they can come to get help and advice for desperate personal or financial predicaments.

"I aim to connect with many local charities and foundations to work together for the community. Monthly charity projects are a vital part of this projects," explains Figen. "They will be funded by donating a percentage of each sale, as well as from individual donations by customers and the local community." The kind of charity projects she plans to support range includes providing schoolbooks to children, essential baby items for expectant mothers, winter coal for needy families – whatever those less fortunate in the community need most.

" My desire is for this project to come to life in the new year and finally create a home for the work of local artisans and craftspeople in my community."

Project details: http://www.indiegogo.com/Community-Gift-Shop

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About the Author

Amanda van Mulligen, British born, moved to The Netherlands in 2000 and runs The Writing Well, an English language writing business. Amanda writes about life as an expatriate. For more information visit her website or contact her at info@thewritingwell.eu

Click here to read her blog A Letter From the Netherlands.

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First Published: Jan 27, 2011

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