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  • Recep KOÇAK

We Started Our Aid Operations Abroad with Ethiopia

The Deniz Feneri Association carried out its first overseas aid operation in Abyssinia, now known as Ethiopia, where Muslims migrated twice.

I would like to present my notes on Ethiopia, the first African country I visited three times since April 2000. In March 2000, news agencies were reporting that there was a hunger disaster in Ethiopia due to drought. There were reports that 500-750 people were dying of hunger every day.

The Board of Directors of the Deniz Feneri Association thought that there was something we could do for Ethiopia. Which parts of the country were most affected by the famine in Ethiopia? What could be taken there from Turkey? What were the consumption habits of Ethiopians? In order to find answers to these and similar questions, we went to Ethiopia together with Sefer Turan, the Foreign News Manager of Kanal 7, and cameraman Ali Ekber Karaçam. I was the Corporate Communications Manager of the association in those days. I was going to report to the management of the association what the conditions in Ethiopia were like and what could be done, while my teammates were going to speed up the solution by bringing the situation to the screen.

Ethiopia had remained in my mind as a country at war with Eritrea for years. In the capital Addis Ababa, we met a hardworking, diligent and positive Turkish Ambassador. Ambassador Murat Bilhan was from Bursa and came from a family of Karacabey sons. He shared very valuable information about the country with us.

Ethiopia was a country of high strategic importance among African countries. Until not so long ago, its borders opened to the sea at the lower end of the Red Sea. When Eritrea declared its independence in 1993, Ethiopia became a landlocked country, almost strangled. Now it was connected to the sea through the port of Djibouti. Djibouti was a country with a population of 1.5 million. The port of Berbera in Somalia was also one of Ethiopia's points of access to the sea.

Ethiopia, like the Chinese, retained their ancient script and still used their ancient calendar. The importance of Ethiopia for all Muslims was that it was the land of Najashi.

Two groups of our Companions emigrated to Abyssinia in order to escape the oppression of the polytheists of Mecca and to live freely as Islam envisaged. The first group emigrated in the fifth year (614) of the Prophet Muhammad's prophethood and the second group emigrated early in the sixth year (615).

The King of the time, Najashi, welcomed the Muslims, hosted them well and then converted to Islam. After his death, the Prophet (saw) offered a funeral prayer in absentia. Najashi's grave was in a village called Negash in the north of the country. In Ethiopia, people were dying of starvation, regardless of religion, language or race. We tried to understand why. Ethiopia has been experiencing famine about every 17 years. When the drought started two years ago, the Ethiopian government appealed to the world for help, but there was no international support. From the beginning of 2000, when deaths from starvation began, the world's attention was focused on this country. Our first mission to Ethiopia took place in the second half of April. In the following months, I would make two more trips with other teammates.

In the days we were there, according to the United Nations and the country's administration, an average of 500-750 people a day were dying of starvation in Ethiopia's Somalya state.

Ethiopia is a country with a surface area of 1 million 222 thousand km2. In other words, it had twice as much land as Turkey and - at that time - 60 million inhabitants. Turkey's population in those years was also 60 million. The population living in the disaster zone was around 10 million. A significant part of them had migrated northwards, towards the regions that received rainfall. The entire drought-stricken region depended on animal husbandry for its livelihood. When grass did not grow, animals could not survive and famine set in. On the hundreds of kilometers of migration, animals perished, children and the elderly died. In the days we were there, some of the drought-stricken people had moved to the northern part where there was no drought and were trying to live off their surviving livestock. The children were thin, but not like the ones you see on TV, with their skin glued to their bones. Those who were like that were the ones who stayed in the south and did not migrate. Our first visit as the Deniz Feneri team was only for due diligence. On our second visit, we provided food aid to two thousand families, enough for a month.

How we procured the food was one of the most frequently asked questions upon our return. We had met with our ambassador and the Ethiopian government. We asked them, "What are the most urgent needs, where should we procure them and where should we distribute them?" Our list was long, including food items such as rice and sugar. The officials said, "There is no need for these, these are luxuries according to the conditions here, you should reduce these items and reach more people, for example, remove rice, because rice is not known here." They pointed out that a grain called "sorghum", which is similar to millet, is consumed a lot in that region. We still decided on five kinds of food: sorghum, milk powder, sugar, oil and corn.

The general economic situation in the country was very bad. The national income per capita was at a very low level of 110 dollars. Ethiopia was one of the poorest countries in the world. There were no deaths due to hunger in other regions, but the people were very poor. They could cultivate their land but their tools were very primitive. For example, they plowed the fields with a tool that was even more primitive than our plow, consisting of two iron rods. They could hardly feed themselves because their land was not very fertile. On top of that, the war economy had paralyzed the country.

The southeastern region where the disaster struck was almost entirely Muslim. Forty-five percent of Ethiopia's population was Muslim, just as many Christians and a small number of black-skinned Jews known as Falasha. In the 1983s, the occupying Israeli government removed and resettled some 100,000 of the Falasha in the occupied Palestinian territories. Of Ethiopia's 12-member cabinet, 7 were Christians and 5 were Muslims. The most remarkable thing was that people of various religions lived in peace in this country. There was no religious conflict. They mutually congratulated each other on their religious holidays.

Food Distribution

On our second visit to Ethiopia, we distributed 193 tons of food. Ours was a beginning and an exercise, a solidarity of the heart. Because it was determined that the region urgently needed 100 thousand tons of food. Our goal was to collect 1 million dollars in cash and buy supplies. During our aid campaign to Ethiopia, we distributed approximately 1 million dollars of aid in Ethiopia. We sent this amount to the Turkish Embassy account in Ethiopia with the permission of the relevant state minister and through the bank. Because there were serious gaps and deficiencies in the legislation on associations. There were great difficulties in delivering aid abroad. With the 2004 Law on Associations, a significant relief was provided in this regard.

The aids made made our Ethiopian brothers and sisters very happy. We could see their joy in their eyes. They were very kind people, if you asked them to sit there, they would sit there for hours. They were lining up to get supplies, they would take their aid and leave without a fight.

While chatting with one of the young people in a village we were helping, he said, "We had an institution with 500 students in the region we abandoned where Islamic sciences were taught. Now we are in these mountains with some friends from there. Yesterday we said among ourselves, 'We are going through an extraordinary period. Our people are dying of hunger. Let's leave humanity aside, but where are the Muslims, don't they know that we are in this situation here? The next day you came. More important than what you brought is that our brothers and sisters from Turkey thought of us."

How much did they know about Turkey?

The level of education was very low. But those who were educated knew the Turks. They had great love for the Ottoman Empire. For example, there is a city called Harar. That city was ruled by governors appointed by the Ottomans for a while. There were also some people from the Ottoman Empire who went there as merchants or to preach the gospel and settled there. Although most of the people of Harar are black-skinned, they identify themselves as Ottoman descendants. Harar governorate invited many ambassadors for a meeting. According to our ambassador, they put a different and special seat next to the other chairs at the meeting table. They wanted our ambassador to sit. When our ambassador said that he did not want to sit in such a seat, they insisted and made him sit, saying "You have a special place in our hearts, that is your place."

We have difficulties as a country, but the gap between us and the people there in terms of standard of living is huge. Our overseas aid that we started with Ethiopia has reached 70 countries of the world. As we share some of the blessings we have with our victimized and oppressed brothers and sisters, Allah paves our way and adds strength to our power. There is no doubt that as long as we help our brothers and sisters, we will continue to be helped.








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