Volunteering on an organic farm in Mersin, southeastern Turkey
Our next volunteering job found us further east in rural Mersin, being picked up by a young, lively 27 year old, Murat. Having grown up in the centre of Mersin, Murat studied engineering in Poland, but came back to his homeland and decided to live his dream; to “get out of the system” and build his own farm.
On the way to the farm he explains his journey of how and why he rejected the expected path of working for his father’s engineering company and instead decided to adopt a new life of organic farming.
“When I was young I had a path: go to university, get a paper (degree), work for my dad. I could buy a house, car, get married, have a family – done. But that was not my path. That was my dad’s path – somebody else’s. I said to myself, there’s more. If a war comes or someone comes along and burns my paper, whoosh! Gone.”
We arrive at the farm and are instantly impressed by what he has created from scratch. For someone with little farming experience and just a comparably small amount of land, Murat has built an impressive steel barn, big enough to home at least 50 cows. Along with the cows, the farm hosts chickens an orchard and more land yet to develop.
Our first job upon arrival was to mix the eight different ingredients used to feed the cows. Next was to get stuck into shovelling dung before the evening milking session. The cows are milked twice daily and is one of the only ways Murat makes his money from the farm.
Because of the lack of chemicals he uses, the cows produce less milk than factory cows. As a result he earns less money than he could. But Murat aim was never to make lots of money, but rather, to develop a communal, organic farm, outside of the normal commercial ‘system’ of farm production.
Murat constantly has volunteers coming here to contribute to his project. We are the 52nd volunteers and the first from the UK. Every new-born calf here gets a volunteers’ name, so fingers crossed a ‘Kirsty’ or ‘John’ will be born!
The atmosphere here is extremely laid back and you are under no obligation to do a certain amount of hours or tasks. He is genuinely happy to simply have the company. We’ve been really eager to get stuck in though! Up at the crack of dawn we feed and milk the cows before settling down to a mezze style feast including fresh milk, cheese and yoghurt of course! Afternoons are spent helping with the cows.
It’s extremely physical work considering the heat, so we go to bed exhausted but satisfied. Despite the never-ending work, there is something rewarding and although there is rarely a free moment to be had, everything has a purpose. Murat explains:
“Life on the farm is different, there are no Sundays or rest days; yesterday I milk the cows, today I milk the cows and tomorrow I do the same. Same with the chicks and the eggs; there is no ‘how many Mondays until they are done’ – no. It is 21 days or maybe 19 or 20, it’s when they are ready. That is time – real time.”
Our time here has been so interesting; it’s been both a physical and cultural experience. The most notable has been meeting the many Syrian refugees who come looking for work on the farm. Many refugees come with degrees and professions. We’ve met a man who has a degree in mechanical engineering, a T.V. presenter and a librarian. Now they all find themselves in one common place; an organic farm in Mersin, begging for work and sometimes a home.
Their previous lives have been destroyed; at times, literally. What they have spent years building has fallen in a flash. It’s a real example of what Murat mentions about the fragility of degree papers, but also of life in general.
But it becomes clear to us that Murat is not a humanitarian aid worker. His generosity and kindness in letting Syrian refugees make a living on his farm is simply reflective of the Turkish culture in general. It is touching to see how welcoming Turkey has been towards Syrians; staying true to its historic hosting of other nationalities.
Whilst many Syrians plan to permanently settle in Turkey, some simply see it as a stepping stone to Europe; particularly Germany and the UK. Their conception of what life is like in Europe and how easy it is to find work is concerning and also heartbreaking. But one cannot blame them for thriving for a better life, free of war and fighting. In fact, we commend and wish them luck!
The first Syrian refugee we met was a guy called ‘Sami’. He has distinctively blue eyes, short brown hair and kind, delicate features. He was found by Murat hitchhiking with his wife and three children. From what we learned, his wife was a hard worker but, with a taste of ‘freedom’, she escaped from the farm along with the children, leaving Sami behind. However, such a seemingly selfish and cruel act meets new controversy when we learn that she married and had her first child with Sami at just 13 years of age. It seems marrying and having children at a young age is common within Syria. One cannot blame her for wanting to leave and find a new life, yet something still feels wrong and sad that such a lovely, kind man is left alone here working long hours for 50TL a day. Although we cannot shed opinion on a relationship we know nothing about.
Regardless, Sami is without doubt one of the most interesting, hard working and remarkable men we have ever met. When be arrived in Turkey two months ago, he spoke only Arabic but now communicates with ease. What’s more, his eagerness to learn English whilst we were there found him speaking basic English by the end of the week.
One of the most memorable nights for us was teaching him numbers as he jotted down the translation from right to left in beautiful Arabic writing. He put our ability to learn Turkish to shame.
From the Syrians we spoke to, we got the impression that they were supportive of UK and US intervention. However, they explained the difficulty and complexity of the political situation. They highlighted at least seven different groups in conflict in Syria, including Assad and ISIS. They understandably disliked Assad but it seemed they did not like the alternatives either. But one thing was for sure, they yearned for peace and to return to Syria.
We all rose a toast and prayed for peace and went to bed with a warm hope a better future. Despite our clear cultural and life differences, there was surprisingly many common ideals and values. But the conflict was never between us in the first place, just misunderstanding which was easily overcome via one simple night of talking and, perhaps more importantly, an intense period of listening.
If you have anything to share or add including your own wwoofing experiences, working on a farm or perhaps meeting Syrian refugees please comment below.