Turkish yogurt billionaire sparks controversy at home
Istanbul - A Kurdish-Turkish businessman, who has lived a picture-book, rags-to-riches tale from humble origins to making billions of dollars in the United States, is raising eyebrows in his home country with statements about the Kurdish conflict.
Hamdi Ulukaya, 43, made headlines in April when he announced he would give shares worth hundreds of millions of dollars to the approximately 2,000 employees at his yogurt factory in New York state. Ulukaya’s company, Chobani, is worth at least $3 billion, according to news reports.
“Starting today, I will have 2,000 partners at Chobani,” Ulukaya tweeted on April 26th. “This is one of the finest moments in my life!”
Most media in Turkey treated the move by Ulukaya as a part of the fairytale story by a generous man determined to give back to his workers after they helped make him a billionaire. However, some criticised statements by Ulukaya about the Kurdish issue in Turkey, a point that is polarising the country as clashes between security forces and Kurdish rebels kill soldiers, police officers, militants and civilians almost every day.
When Ulukaya was born in the eastern Anatolian province of Erzincan in 1972, his family ran a dairy farm. He went to the United States to study in 1994, stayed on and started a small business selling feta cheese in the early 2000s. His breakthrough came when he began producing yogurt in 2007. Chobani, the name of his company, is based on the Turkish word coban for “shepherd”.
Ulukaya once told a Turkish interviewer his success would not have been possible in Turkey because business in his home country was all about connections. By contrast, he said he did not know anybody in the United States but still did well because he was selling a good product.
Ulukaya has been active in refugee relief, running his own non-governmental organisation, the Tent Foundation, which says its mission is to “aid refugees and to end displacement everywhere”, according to the group’s website. He visited the Greek Aegean island of Lesbos in 2015 to meet refugees who had crossed from Turkey.
“This issue shouldn’t have come to this point,” Ulukaya told CNN International, referring to the refugee crisis that brought about 1 million migrants from Syria, Afghanistan and other countries to Europe in 2015. “It could have been stopped a long time ago.”
Ulukaya said he will eventually donate half of his personal fortune to help refugees around the world. He has taken on refugees as workers in his yogurt plant in New Berlin, New York.
The Chobani chief donated $2 million to support Kurds fleeing from Kobane, a Syrian city on the border with Turkey that was under attack by Islamic State (ISIS) in 2014 and early 2015. At the time, the Turkish government was accused by critics at home and abroad of refusing to help the Kurdish defenders of the city, who were led by a group linked to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), seen as a terrorist group by Ankara and the West.
Ulukaya has been treading carefully as he navigates the political minefields of the Kurdish conflict and the Syrian war. “I’m not interested in the political aspect of the situation or whoever plays what game,” Ulukaya told the Turkish Hurriyet newspaper when he made his donation for Kobane in 2014. “Either we will be watching the massacre there and will live on with a guilty conscience or we will save people.”
While his philanthropic work has won praise, some of his comments have angered supporters of the Turkish government, which is locked in a bloody confrontation with the PKK. Peace talks between the government and jailed PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan broke down in 2015. Since then, a surge in violence has shattered hopes for a peaceful end to a conflict that started in 1984, has killed more than 40,000 people and turned millions of Kurds into refugees.
Kurdish media have trumpeted Ulukaya’s ethnic identity as a Kurd. Rudaw, a Kurdish news network in northern Iraq, called him a “son of a Kurdish shepherd, who has his roots in northern Kurdistan in Turkey”. But Turkish commentators have questioned why Ulukaya is marketing his Chobani as “Greek yogurt”, as opposed to Turkish yogurt.
Remarks by Ulukaya in the CNN interview enraged some commentators in Turkey. “I left Turkey because I was Kurdish and I was very serious about Kurdish rights,” Ulukaya said. “A lot of Kurds in Turkey flee the country; their villages were bombed.”
Ali Saydam, a columnist with the pro-government Yeni Safak newspaper in Turkey, wrote in May that Ulukaya had said things that were “hard to swallow”. He added he would not believe that the businessman was employing refugees at his factory “until I see it with my own eyes”.
Saydam wrote that although Ulukaya was marketing Turkish yogurt as Greek yogurt and was talking about Turkey’s oppression of Kurds, he was being presented as an “exemplary Turkish entrepreneur”.