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The man who changes lives

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Levent Topçu plays with young Syrian refugees at the accommodation he provided for them, in Torbali, Turkey. © UNHCR/Andrew McConnell

TORBALI, Turkey – One man can change lives. Just ask the Syrian refugees in Torbali, near Izmir, about the work of Levent Topçu.

Levent, known to the refugees simply by his first name, is the 52-year-old general manager of Ege, a Turkish company that makes leather goods and employs 60 people.

More important, he is part of a group of Facebook friends who created an association to help people in need, including some of the 2.7 million Syrian refugees in Turkey. Levent and his friends, with some help from UNHCR, have transformed the existence of more than 100 people here.

Three months ago, his group renovated an abandoned building, making it suitable for several families to live in. Then Levent went to the miserable shelters and tents put up by refugees next to the fields where they worked.

“Levent found us,” said Abeer, a 32-year-old Syrian with 10 children, who fled her village near Aleppo a year ago. “Up to then, our tents flooded in the rain. He brought us to this building.

“You can’t describe what we felt. Finally we found someone to care for us. He provided a bathroom. He brings food and blankets, and sweets for the children. Yesterday he brought us a washing machine.”

The man himself deflects praise.

“We’re trying our best but we think we’re still not doing enough,” he said.

“You can’t describe what we felt. Finally we found someone to care for us.”

He and his association, the Unity Solidarity group, moved quickly when a new Turkish law came into effect in January giving refugees the right to obtain work permits. Until then, Syrians who had fled the war, and hundreds of thousands of other refugees, had no legal right to work.

After obtaining advice and help from UNHCR, Levent set about putting the law into effect. He found two Syrians, compiled the paperwork and, in six weeks, cleared the bureaucratic hurdles. Both men are now working at the Ege factory, the first in the region to hire refugees, and they earn the same as their Turkish counterparts.

“It’s good work, and I thank God for it,” said Mohammed, one of the first two. He started two months ago. “My goal is to go back home with my family. I never thought of Europe. So we stayed here and now I can work.”

Two more Syrians now have work permits and work at the factory. Another two, making six altogether, will also start at Ege. The law limits refugees to 10 per cent of the workforce of any company.

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“We will stay here until we can return to Syria,” says Asmahan. “Turkey is close to Syria and we don’t feel like we are far from home.” © UNHCR/Andrew McConnell

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Mohammed, 37 and Firdos, 25, from Aleppo, live with their children in accommodation provided by Levent Topçu. © UNHCR/Andrew McConnell

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Juria, 31, pictured with her daughters Manal, 7, and Fatima, 3, in Torbali, Turkey. © UNHCR/Andrew McConnell

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Young Syrian refugees play outside their accommodation provided by Levent Topçu, in Torbali, Turkey. © UNHCR/Andrew McConnell

“We have a saying, you can give a man a fish to eat, or you can teach him to fish,” Levent said. “That’s what we’re trying to do with the work permits.”

His help touches many others, too.

“This past winter, I knew a lot of Syrian refugees would need boots and I thought of using some lower-quality leather to make them,” he said. “But I have a lot of friends and one of them gave me a supply of first-quality leather and we made 2,300 pairs of boots. We distributed them here and further south at camps around Gaziantep.

“You can give a man a fish to eat, or you can teach him to fish.”

“Then I noticed a lot of the refugees didn’t have socks. I phoned another friend and we got socks for all of them.”

At the settlement set up by his association, the refugees receive accommodation, heat, electricity and food for free. The men working at Ege will be provided with free food and accommodation until the end of the year to allow them to save some money.

Levent says his motivation is simple.

“These people are my brothers and sisters. We only have one life and we have an obligation to help.

“The Koran says the way to help people in need is give them something you love. I have a lot of clothing so I gave away one of my nice outfits. But I kept the best one at home.”

He laughed.

“I still have a way to go.”

By: Don Murray