News and analysis
October 10, 2014

Founder of Chobani Yogurt Pledges $2-Million for Syrian and Iraqi Refugees

Hamdi Ulukaya

The founder of the popular Greek yogurt brand Chobani has committed $2-million to address the refugee crisis along Turkey’s borders, a rare gift amid near silence from private philanthropists in response to the humanitarian crisis in the region.

Hamdi Ulukaya, a Kurdish Turk, moved to the United States as a student in 1994. He founded Chobani in upstate New York in 2005, and its products hit grocery-store shelves two years later. The privately held company turned the yogurt industry on its head and now has more than $1-billion in annual sales. Forbes estimated Mr. Ulukaya’s net worth as $1.5-billion.

In a video statement released in conjunction with the announcement, Mr. Ulukaya described the donation as "a flower in the dirt."

News and images out of Syria and Iraq border regions are so bad that sometimes "we cannot even watch it," he said. The goal is to send a message to the refugees that "we hear you, we feel you, we are worried about you, and we are going to do everything we can to make you safe."

Mr. Ulukaya’s initial donation will go to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the International Rescue Committee, which are operating humanitarian relief operations along Turkey’s borders with Iraq and Syria. Mr. Ulukaya, who was raised in a dairy-farming family in Eastern Turkey, also plans to identify and support other nongovernmental organizations in the region, including those focusing on long-term recovery and economic-stabilization efforts.

"Private philanthropists like Hamdi Ulukaya provide leadership to one of the most critical issues facing humanity today," Anne-Marie Grey, chief executive of USA for UNHCR, said in a statement.

The Syria conflict, now in its fourth year, has sent 3.1 million refugees poring into neighboring countries, including Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey, according to United Nations data. In recent weeks, the refugee crisis has been exacerbated by the radical militant group known as ISIS, which has besieged Syrian border towns including Kobani. The U.N. says it needs $3.7-billion in funding to address the needs this year. So far, it has received $1.8-billion.

Americans have failed to respond adequately to the humanitarian crisis produced by the Syrian conflict, according to international policy and disaster-response experts. In a Washington Post opinion piece in December, former U.S. Ambassador to Turkey Morton Abramowitz called out faith communities and others for not doing more.

"Many constituencies that would usually promote greater involvement appear to be sitting out the Syrian crisis," he wrote.

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