How this NGO is helping victims of Turkish mine disaster provide for their families

A project spearheaded by Turkish Americans aims to assist impoverished women in Turkey’s western town of Soma, where a massive mining disaster has left hundreds of families without livelihood.

al-monitor A picture displays the women of the Soma project who have learned to make more than 60 products and have for the first time participated at a local fair after only one year since the start of the project, March 8, 2016. Photo by FACEBOOK/Anatolian Artisans.

Topics covered

women in society, united states, turkish women, poverty, entrepreneur, employment, disability, arts

Mar 30, 2016

In May 2014, Turkey’s worst mining disaster killed 301 workers in a coal mine in the western town of Soma. Since then, time has largely effaced the tragedy from public memory, with the trial of those responsible moving at a snail’s pace. Left behind are hundreds of impoverished women and children, struggling to hold on to life. Hundreds of households have lost their breadwinners as many miners were left crippled and jobless, in addition to those who perished in the fire.

A number of civic society groups, manufacturers and fashion designers have mobilized to help the miners’ wives earn their living. Anatolian Artisans, a Maryland-based nonprofit organization spearheaded by Turkish Americans, is among the helping hands. The organization, dedicated to supporting low-income artisans in Turkey since 1999, has focused not on widows but rather on women whose husbands have been incapacitated, left crippled by the disaster. It has established a workshop in Soma as part of a project to market the women’s handmade products to international customers.

In an interview with Al-Monitor, Anatolian Artisans founder and president Yildiz Yagci said they joined hands with female Turkish activists and Turkey’s Association for the Support of Contemporary Living to launch the project last year, while two US-based organizations — the Turkish Philanthropy Fund and the Poverty Alleviation Fund — provided funds for the microenterprise.

“We brought international designers to the workshop to train the women in line with international standards,” Yagci told Al-Monitor. She said that the products included small bags, purses, puppets, necklaces, wristlets and organic-cotton scarves. “The women use traditional skills like needle-lace and embroidery, which they have known for years, to make contemporary products destined for the global market,” she added.

Soma’s children are also involved in the project, assisting their mothers with drawings, which are embroidered on bags and purses. The children’s names and ages also appear on the items, which have become the project’s best-selling products, according to Yagci.

With the sponsorship of a Turkey-based courier company, the products are shipped to the United States and showcased at fairs. In July, Soma’s handcrafts are scheduled to debut also at the world’s largest folk art fair, the Santa Fe International Folk Art Market.

Because of funding difficulties, Yagci said, “We converted the Soma workshop to a cooperative, which enables the women to receive more orders.”

Husniye Aydin is one of the women involved in the project. Though she lost no relative in the 2014 disaster, she stepped in to organize the women and is now the manager of the workshop, where 22 women currently work. Almost all of them are the wives of miners who survived the disaster with injuries, and are reluctant to talk to the media because of ongoing lawsuits against the state and the mining company.

Speaking on their behalf, Aydin told Al-Monitor, “The women here are really in dire straits. Their husbands survived the disaster with injuries, and because they didn’t die, the wives received no compensation or aid. But what about the miners who didn’t die? They were left jobless. They suffered also psychological traumas after spending hours trapped underground, watching their co-workers perish. They have been unable to work, undergoing lengthy treatments. The husband of a friend of mine, for instance, was the last person to be rescued after 10 hours and was unable to find work afterward. The women are now struggling to provide for their families with the small things they make here. [Their husbands] didn’t die, but were, in a sense, condemned to a living death.”

The women, Aydin said, earn between 200 and 300 Turkish lira per month ($80-$100), which is too little to make ends meet. “We can’t sell our products in Turkey, while the sales abroad [through Anatolian Artisans] go up and down. The women are happy to be here, but they need more work and more income,” she said.

Turkey’s internationally acclaimed sculptress Nadia Arditti has also joined the effort for Soma’s women. Part of the proceeds from her upcoming exhibition in Washington will go to the project. “The pieces in the exhibition are themed [mostly] on moonlight and optimism, but there is also the theme of messenger birds, which I chose for Soma’s women, hoping it will bring them good news,” Arditti told Al-Monitor. “I will donate part of the proceeds to the women’s workshop in Soma. Such workshops are very important for jobless and homeless women. I believe that teaching those women skills and increasing the number of these workshops is more beneficial for them than direct financial assistance.”

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