İsmail Cingöz, president of the Turkish charity Kimse Yok Mu (Is Anybody There), which is affiliated with the Hizmet movement inspired by prominent scholar Fethullah Gülen, explained to Today's Zaman that the organization has contributed to social and international peace since the day of its foundation.
Cingöz describes the foundation as the helping hand of Turkey extended to the rest of the world. Answering our questions, Cingöz explained their ongoing campaign for the Eid al-Adha holiday, the government-approved smear campaign against them and more, at the charity's headquarters in İstanbul's Sultanbeyli district. Cingöz underlined that Kimse Yok Mu has lent a helping hand to needy people in 113 countries, and its activities follow the principles of transparency.
As its president, can you describe Kimse Yok Mu?
Kimse Yok Mu is an institution that has been honored by Parliament and also received many prizes, medals and orders of merit from 113 countries for its humanitarian services. In my opinion, Kimse Yok Mu is the Turkish people's united caravan of volunteers that enables them to help people in need around the world; it is Turkey's helping hand, extended to the rest of the world. This is why Kimse Yok Mu is more than just a charity organization. Helping people in need across the world, thanks to the donations and contributions of Turkish people from all ages and all parts of the country, Kimse Yok Mu has become a symbol of Turkish people's kindness.
Can you talk about how the Islamic world perceives Kimse Yok Mu?
The Muslim world has been struggling with chronic, centuries-old problems. This is the reality of this world. Unfortunately, Muslim communities are considered to be the source of problems rather than a community generating values, taking responsibility and helping the people of the world. However, Kimse Yok Mu diagnoses problems and provides solutions to them. Through Kimse Yok Mu, the people of Anatolia say to the rest of the world, "We are people who take the initiative in the fields of education, health, search and rescue and even providing clean water." From this perspective, Kimse Yok Mu is a source of pride for Turkish people. Although we are carrying out our activities through the Kimse Yok Mu charitable organization, the people that we help know that these things are possible thank to the efforts and donations of Turkish and Muslim people, and this boosts the prestige of these people and Muslims in the world.
You said you are working on a large scale. How many volunteers participate in your activities?
Kimse Yok Mu was established 12 years ago, and we currently have 53,000 regular volunteers registered in our system. We also have unregistered volunteers. We are active in 113 countries around the world, and in each country there are many geographical locations where we work. We distribute food, the meat of sacrificed animals and dig water wells, and it is impossible to conduct all these activities with only 53,000 volunteers. Thus we need to add unregistered volunteers working during our campaigns and various activities in various countries. We can say we have hundreds of thousands of volunteers doing all of this. For example, when you intend to bring humanitarian aid to Sudan or the Philippines, you will need tens of thousands of volunteers to deliver aid to needy people in these regions. Including local volunteers, hundreds of thousands of volunteers participate in our humanitarian activities. Moreover, when we bring humanitarian aid to a country with three Turkish volunteers, close to 100 local volunteers help us to deliver aid.
Uniting around good projects
It cannot be easy to put such a large number of people into action. What is the secret behind this motivation?
I will not talk only about our 53,000 registered volunteer members, because more than 3 million Turkish people donate to Kimse Yok Mu. Thus, if we talk only about our registered volunteer members, this means disrespecting millions of people who support us with their donations and prayers. In a world where the bad, united around egotism, shed blood and sow the seeds of hate, the good need to take the initiative and unite around good projects. This is the motivation behind our activities. Secondly, these good people become happy and peaceful when they do good for needy people. Putting a smile on a person's face makes you so happy that you cannot trade this happiness for billions of dollars. It is like a contagious disease of good; once you are infected, you become addicted.
Do you set any criteria while launching an aid campaign?
One of the main principles of Kimse Yok Mu is helping needy people without distinguishing between them as aggressors and victims. Our primary concern is providing humanitarian aid to all people in need. We do not care if the Bashar al-Assad regime or the dissident groups were right in Syria; the only thing that we are concerned about is the people who have been victimized by the civil war in Syria. This is our main principle. And the second one is that if there is poverty, we help those people regardless of their religion or ethnicity. We do not care about the religion of the victims. We think that asking victims about their religion is shameful. It is not correct behavior to help needy people according to their religion or ethnicity. In short, the level of poverty is the decisive factor in deciding the people that we will bring help to both inside and outside of Turkey.
Do you have a special unit deciding who can or cannot receive help from the organization?
We have a social evaluation commission. A large portion of our 53,000 regular volunteers registered in our system are also members of this commission as well. They are volunteers, but they work in a very professional manner. They examine each application in detail.
So why do some groups question Kimse Yok Mu's transparency, asking, "Why do you take humanitarian aid to different countries despite of the fact that there are so many needy people in Turkey?"
Those asking these questions are trying to manipulate people's perceptions of Kimse Yok Mu. This is because 70 percent of the organization's income is used in Turkey, and the rest, 30 percent, is used in 113 countries. This is our home, of course, and our own people are our priority.
In how many countries are you currently active?
We are currently active in 113 countries, and we have helped more than 10 million people.
Do you only help needy people who are close to the Hizmet movement?
I can say that a large portion of our donors are members of the Hizmet movement. However, we do not help members of the Hizmet movement, and therefore the evidence points to the contrary. Kimse Yok Mu has lent a helping hand to 317,000 poor families in Turkey. So, can all 317,000 of them be members of the Hizmet movement? I have never investigated this, but I believe they are not.
Perhaps this shows Turkish people's generosity and magnanimity.
Without a doubt. I believe that the people of this region cannot be defeated materially or spiritually.
Preparing for Eid al-Adha
There is so little time left before Eid al-Adha. What preparations have you made for it?
We have completed all our preparations in the countries where we will distribute the meat of sacrificed animals to needy families. We have determined the contact persons in the villages and the towns where we will carry out distribution. On the first day of the festival, we will slaughter animals in 72 countries, including Myanmar, Pakistan, Gaza-Palestine, Sudan, Niger and Chad.
How many people have donated money and given an animal for slaughter this year?
The number has not been finalized yet, but last year close to 60,000 people donated their sacrificial animal to the charity. Of course, we hope to surpass last year's meat distribution amount in this year. However, as of today (Sept. 24, 2014) we were only able to collect 50 percent of last year's donations.
How have the media attempts to malign the charity affected your preparations for Eid al-Adha?
I must say this. Some people have posted messages saying they will not donate their sacrifice to us on the social media. I do not want their donations. I want magnanimous and generous people who intend to perform good deeds to donate their sacrifice to us. As a 50-year-old man, I have never received any financial aid from a charity organization. We do not accept aid, we distribute it. Thus, we ask you to donate your sacrifices not to our charity but to needy people around the world. We just act as a mediator between you and the less fortunate.
Did you prepare a campaign to help the families of victims of the Soma mining disaster -- the deadliest industrial accident in Turkey's history?
In addition to distributing sacrificial animals to them, we are also planning to continue financial assistance for these families. Kimse Yok Mu has given the largest and most regular financial aid to the families of Soma victims. Kimse Yok Mu has bought houses for 10 families, provided many families with household appliances and granted scholarships to more than 200 families' children, in other words to all applicants.
How can people donate their sacrificial meat or cash or in-kind donations to Kimse Yok Mu?
Donations to Kimse Yok Mu can be made by texting the name of the campaign to 5777 via SMS to donate TL 5.00 or through our website at http://www.kimseyokmu.org.tr. Also, they can donate their meat via our websites or by phoning our call center on 444 45 93.
Looking at the difference in prices
What is the reason that different aid organizations determine a different price for sacrificial meat?
As Kimse Yok Mu, this year we will slaughter animals in 72 countries and we could have determined 72 different prices for sacrificing animals in these 72 different countries. However, this would make things more complicated and the public institutions that inspect aid organizations recommend us to keep things simple. This is why some aid organizations determine two prices for sacrificing animals inside or outside Turkey. For example, while the Humanitarian Relief Foundation [İHH] determined the price for sacrificing an animal both in Turkey and abroad as TL 450, the Turkish Religious Affairs Foundation [TDV] determined two prices, TL 575 for an animal to be slaughtered in Turkey and TL 400 for abroad. They just simplify the paperwork. We are also doing the same thing; we have determined four options. According to the wishes of our donors, we perform the act of sacrifice. We are doing our best in order to perform their religious obligation by proxy. Everyone can be assured of this. After the sacrificial act is performed, all our donors are informed via SMS.
Are there any differences between the humanitarian campaigns launched at home and abroad?
The humanitarian campaigns launched at home and abroad are different, but we also accept general donations. We can say we are using people's donations according to their wishes. Money raised for a humanitarian campaign launched for a specific project cannot be used for another project.
Transportation of aid must be one of the hardest tasks. How do you get humanitarian aid to its destination?
We get the aid to its destination based on the principle of transparency. It is very hard... We work where there is need, and often these are areas of deprivation and disasters. For example, in Somalia we may have to deliver the aid under the protection of 50 armed guards in case there is a riot. People are living in poverty and are hungry and desperate. I must note that none of our volunteers have been hurt while distributing aid; however, we have been saved from bombing attacks and narrowly escaped death. This is what our team experienced in Sudan. This should not be misunderstood! We do not always bring humanitarian aid from Turkey via trucks; mostly we plan what we need and buy them from the closest place. Sometimes we need to work nearby, like northern Iraq, or sometimes in distant places, but we need to reach the people in need via the shortest route.
We believe that transparency is a must for charity activities. Donors are concerned that their donations reach their destination. What do you to instil trust in your donors? Especially these days when you have faced several allegations...
Although we are not obliged to do this, we inform our donors when their donations including their sacrificial meat, SMS campaigns, or general donations reach their destination. For example, if a person donated money for cataract surgery or for the Water Wells campaigns, we send photos of our fieldwork to the donors. Recently, we started to send short videos of our fieldwork to donors. We do this because we pay great importance to transparency. All donors are welcome to inspect all of our campaigns, and see how their donations are being used. Under law, we can explain what we are doing and how we use the money donated to Kimse Yok Mu. I believe that the archive department is one of the busiest departments in our headquarters.
Who inspects your activities?
Normally, the Department of Associations at the Interior Ministry is supposed to inspect us. Generally, inspectors came from this department. I don't know if they have gone to other associations, but the inspectors from the Chief Civil Inspectorate audited us. Now, we hear that the Finance Ministry and the Customs and Trade Ministry want to inspect us, too, although they are not authorized to do so. We are also inspected by the Foreign Ministry and Turkey's embassies abroad.
On claims of dodging inspections..
You say that your activities comply with the legislation and you have nothing to hide. But some groups claim that you try to dodge inspections.
Such claims are complete nonsense. Our association is never upset by inspections; rather, we are ready to be inspected on a daily basis and we are even prepared to provide permanent rooms for inspections at our facilities. As I said before, we have nothing to fear. Not every institution in Turkey can be as transparent as our association. Recently, they have started to inspect our branch in Diyarbakır. It seems this will go on this way and the number of inspections will multiply. I say this because at the end of the first inspection, the inspectors said, "You go into particulars too much." The inspector believes that our association keeps very detailed reports, although this is not legally required.
Did your association experience any disruption in the wake of the graft and bribery investigations of Dec. 17, 2013?
This operation was an obvious inflection points not only for us, but also for the entire Turkish society. It is virtually impossible to repair this disruption. It has damaged the society. It is saddening to see that even people who lent support to you and cooperated with you in many projects and who knew very closely what we are doing are now keeping silent with different reasons. I find this disgraceful. And there are those who speak words that cannot be reconciled with our moral values or who resort to profanity.
Were any of your members or workers involved in any act that might damage the association's reputation.
Our activities are conducted on a voluntary basis. I have been acting as head of the association. I can assure you that none of our volunteers or employees was involved in any improper form of conduct during this time.
You recently stated on TV that your association has been exposed to vilification, describing the efforts as defamation. Can you elaborate on this?
I used that phrase to describe the fabricated news stories about our association. Even the source of the news was false. There was no such report as mentioned in the news story; there was no official going under the title of Somalian Foreign Ministry counselor. I say this based on the information the Somalian state provided to us. The pro-government papers claim that our association didn't send an ounce of aid to Somalia, but our aid to Somalia totaled TL 58,242,808. Our humanitarian efforts were coordinated by Somalian officials. We mainly provided tents, foodstuff and education. In addition, Kimse Yok Mu built Deva Hospital in Somalia. Even the current justice minister offered to jointly ensure the opening of this hospital. We provided health services to more than 100,000 Somalians. Our humanitarian efforts were supported by the current president, health minister, justice minister and deputies, particularly including those from the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party). Given all this, the campaign to smear Kimse Yok Mu amounts to defamation. We justifiably complain about this unfairness. There are institutions that haven't used the funds raised for the tragedy in Somalia. All of them are official institutions. They are recorded in the minutes of Parliament. They don't talk about these irregularities, but rush to slander the diligently working organizations. We are the first aid organization to take action in the face of the tragedy in Somalia and all our activities are extremely transparent, but they shamelessly slander our association. It seems as if we are being penalized for working so hard. We are being penalized because we are perceived as rivals by certain groups. There are ignorant people who misguidedly attack our organization based on such fabricated news stories, but knowingly or unknowingly hinder our humanitarian efforts. This is extremely saddening.
Reaching a Gaza under blockade
You are one of the first humanitarian relief associations to reach Gaza under the blockade...
We have always been diligent about our responsibilities toward Palestinians and we are always punctual in responding to their tragedies in a timely manner. In response to the recent tragedy in Gaza, we quickly took action. While some were busy with protests or laying wreaths, etc., we completed our preparations and sent our aid. Protesters claim they are helping Palestinians through demonstrating. But my duty as a humanitarian association is to focus solely on how to provide humanitarian aid, not to manipulate the nation for various political purposes. So they should not keep us busy with trivial matters as we have important duties to fulfill. I am not criticizing the protesters. But the same people organize demonstrations at Fatih Mosque. It is improper to use mosques or temples for protests or political activities. It seems as if they defuse their anger at these protests and then act as if they have fulfilled their duties. According to the philosophy of humanitarian work, you cannot help victims by merely protesting. The humanitarian relief we sent to Palestine in the wake of Israel's attacks against Gaza amounts to TL 1,308,436. We expect this sum to exceed TL 3 million with our donations during Eid al-Adha (Feast of the Sacrifice). We built a water supply pipeline to serve 80,000 people in Gaza.
What are your humanitarian efforts regarding Syrian refugees?
Our assistance to our guests from Syria has totaled TL 71 million. During this period, we sent 330 trailer-loads of humanitarian aid to Syrians. We are also sponsoring the education of 1,250 Syrian students.
Published on Today's Zaman, 30 September 2014, Tuesday