This Turkish Retiree Is Saving the Lives of Syrian Refugees

Why you should care

Because charity starts at home — and for some, home is just 400 miles from Aleppo.

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Geo facts & figures

Meet modern-day chain-smoking saint Cavit Etleç — or, as he’s known to several thousand Syrian refugees, Baba Cavit (“Papa Cavit” in Turkish and Arabic).

The 65-year-old professional carpenter dedicates his retirement to supporting hundreds of Syrian refugees in his neighborhood of Siteler in the Turkish capital of Ankara. With nothing more than his phone, a giant notebook, a small pension and some donations, he has helped an estimated 3,500 refugees find food, jobs, medical care, legal advice, housing, heaters, clothing and other supplies — and often hosts dozens of families for meals and overnight stays in his two-story house.

If I can eliminate the hunger of someone, cure their disease, satisfy their needs, this makes me happy.

Cavit Etleç

Nearly 4 million refugees from the devastating Syrian civil war have fled to neighboring Turkey — the most of any country and more than three times as many as the entire European Union. Around 23,000 of those refugees are currently living in Siteler. Due to redevelopment projects, most old buildings in the neighborhood have been destroyed; many refugees live in the ruins, while most Turkish citizens have left.

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Most locals fled the neighborhood of Siteler when the first Syrian refugees arrived in 2012. Cavit Etleç stayed, threw open his doors and even sold his car to help provide for them.

Source Annabella Stieren, Christian Prinz and Brindusa Nastasa

One evening more than five years ago, Etleç found a family of 25 shivering in a house without windows. He told his wife to make the biggest pot of soup the world had ever seen and brought all of his blankets to the family.

Today, more than 100 people ring his doorbell daily. “This is my duty,” he tells OZY. “If I can eliminate the hunger of someone, cure their disease, satisfy their needs, this makes me happy. That is why they call me Baba.”

Most official aid to the region is channeled through Etleç and his wife, who were honored last year with an International Benevolence Award from the state-run religious authority, which was presented by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. “I never wanted to be awarded for it. I only wanted Allah to reward me for my deeds in the afterlife,” Etleç told local media at the time, “but I decided to open up to journalists because this means publicity for refugees and therefore more aid for them.”

Video by Annabella Stieren, Christian Prinz and Brindusa Nastasa; James Watkins contributed to the text.

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