How Afghan refugees are helping Turkey fight coronavirus

UNHCR initiative sees Afghans in Kayseri produce 1,000 face masks a day and soap to aid hospitals and local community.

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    How Afghan refugees are helping Turkey fight coronavirus
    A total of 30,000 face masks will be produced and distributed under the UN-funded programme [Photo courtesy: Afghan Refugees Solidarity Association]

    Afghan refugees are contributing to Turkey's fight against the coronavirus, producing soap and 1,000 face masks a day to protect people from the pandemic.

    A group of about 12 refugees living in the Turkish city of Kayseri have teamed up with local volunteers to produce and deliver these essential supplies to state hospitals, migrant health centres and local NGOs. The initiative is funded by the UN refugee agency, UNHCR.

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    "Within the first two weeks of mask production, 15,000 were produced," Selin Unal, UNHCR Turkey spokesperson, told Al Jazeera. "Another 15,000 masks are projected to be produced and delivered."

    Some 2,600 soaps will also be distributed among the refugee community and locals.

    "COVID-19 is a global and fast-evolving health situation," Unal said. "It affects everyone without discrimination, reminding us that we are all in this together, and every action counts."

    Turkey, which has so far recorded more than 172,000 coronavirus cases and nearly 5,000 deaths, has started easing lockdown restrictions.

    Restaurants and cafes around the country, as well as Istanbul's iconic 15th-century Grand Bazaar market, reopened earlier this month.

    Officials say the pandemic is now under control, but it is still mandatory to wear masks when shopping or visiting crowded public places.

    Afghan refugees in Turkey
    A group of Afghan refugees working on the face masks [Photo courtesy: Afghan Refugees Solidarity Association (ARSA)] 

    Ali Hekmat, who moved to Kayseri from the city of Ghazni, Afghanistan, in 2009, said he decided to take part in the volunteer work as a way to "give back" to Turkey and its people during the health crisis.

    "We were so warmly welcomed by the Turkish government and local people, we found shelter, we have jobs, our children can go to school, and it is time for us to give something back," the 35-year-old, who works as an architect, told Al Jazeera.

    The refugees, some of them tailors, are using five sets of sewing machines to prepare the cloth masks. They are aiming to produce 30,000 masks by the end of the 30-day programme.

    "There was a shortage of masks. I wanted to use the refugees' talent and locally available fabric to show that we, refugees, can also contribute to the response of the pandemic and not just rely on assistance," Hekmat said.

    Among the volunteers is Roshan Ghafori, a 26-year-old dentistry student who recently left Herat along with her mother and three siblings to escape the threat of the Taliban group. 

    She said the coronavirus has impacted people across the world. "In this situation... it's our duty to help the people in any way," Ghafori told Al Jazeera.

    Afghan refugees in Turkey
    Nearly 3,000 soaps will be distributed among the refugees and the local community [Photo courtesy: Zakira Hekmat/ARSA] 

    Economic effect

    Turkey is home to almost 3.6 million Syrian refugees and close to 330,000 registered refugees and asylum-seekers of other nationalities, including Afghans and Pakistanis, according to the UNHCR.

    The coronavirus pandemic has affected all sectors of the society in the country.

    The closure of businesses and economic slowdown due to the lockdown has left the refugee population, many working informally, particularly vulnerable.

    "The economic and social impacts of COVID-19 on refugees and international protection applicants in Turkey are equally concerning," UNHCR's Unal said.

    While the mask and soap-making is voluntary work and not a source of income for the refugees, Unal believes it can help foster social cohesion.

    "Such solidarity and cooperation at the local level are also important," she said.

    Follow Saba Aziz on Twitter: @saba_aziz

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    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News