'This Ramadan does not feel like other Ramadans'

A Turkish farmer reeling from the death of her husband and the February earthquakes finds some comfort in cooking iftars for her son.

Illustration of a woman and teenager
[Jawahir Al-Naimi and Muaz Kory/Al Jazeera]
[Jawahir Al-Naimi and Muaz Kory/Al Jazeera]

What's your money worth? A series from the front line of the cost of living crisis, where people who have been hit hard share their monthly expenses.

Name: Sevim Artar

Age: 54

Occupation: Subsistence farmer, although she sells a small amount of her produce

Lives with: her son Yusuf Kahriman (15)

Lives in: A 180-square-metre three-room house in Altınüzüm, a village in Turkey

Monthly household income: 3,000 Turkish lira ($155) through selling some produce and from her state pension as a widow. She also received a one-time government payment of 10,000 lira ($515) in cash assistance for earthquake survivors to rebuild their homes.

Total expenses for the month: 9,580 lira ($494)

Sevim Artar, 54, sits on the kitchen floor preparing food for her and her son Yusuf for iftar.
Sevim Artar sits on her kitchen floor preparing iftar for herself and her son Yusuf [Stefania D'Ignoti/Al Jazeera]
Sevim Artar sits on her kitchen floor preparing iftar for herself and her son Yusuf [Stefania D'Ignoti/Al Jazeera]

A year ago, Sevim would have never expected two major events to change her life forever in just 12 months.

She and her husband Ali were living quiet, modest lives as farmers in a small village in southeastern Turkey. Sevim was raising her youngest son, 15-year-old Yusuf, while her two older sons made her proud by working in the military and for an NGO.

As she laid food on the carpet for last year’s Bayram – as Eid al-Fitr is known in Turkey – little did she know that it would be the last happy Ramadan her family would spend together. By then, the family’s finances had already been tested by the increasing inflation devastating Turkey’s economy and the rising cost of living.

Then, a few weeks later, her life took a sudden, disorientating turn when her husband was diagnosed with brain cancer.

From then on, all her energy went into caring for Ali while most of the household funds went towards hospital bills until he passed away in October 2022, about five months after his diagnosis.

Ali used to cultivate land and herd goats with the help of his wife. He was one of the most respected men in the village, thanks to his stoic, but kind, wise nature.

Losing the family’s pillar and breadwinner was a big blow for Sevim. “I thought that was my life’s biggest challenge, that I’d never recover from such a huge pain,” she says quietly as she sits on the floor of her house, preparing gözleme – a typical flatbread from Turkey’s southeast filled with potatoes and herbs – for iftar.

After her husband’s death, Sevim survived on her widow’s pension and the money she made selling the pickled vegetables and olive oil she produces. Her two older sons pitched in when they could to help her and Yusuf stay afloat.

But then another tragedy struck, this time affecting the whole village.

The earthquake

On February 6, at 4.17am, a 7.8-magnitude earthquake devastated vast swathes of southeastern Turkey, including Sevim’s village.

About a quarter of the houses in Altınüzüm, a Kurdish-majority village at the border with Hatay – the most devastated province in the region – collapsed. Several of her relatives, including five young nephews, died in the tragedy, and she felt an indescribable pain as she watched survivors extract their bodies from under the rubble.

For weeks, all she saw around her were collapsed houses and neighbours in complete shock. Already reeling from the loss of her husband and the financial hurdles she faced as a consequence of his death, Sevim struggled to cope with this new tragedy.

“The main dilemma that constantly popped in my head was: How are we going to fix all this? With what money?” she recounts with despair in her voice.

Although her house did not collapse and remains habitable, it was damaged, and for more than a month she slept in a tent in her garden. The continuous aftershocks, which can still be felt daily in Altınüzüm, made her worry that her house could crumble at any moment - and even when there weren’t aftershocks, anxiety attacks would make Sevim feel as though the ground was shaking.

An illustration of a graph indicating inflation with the left bar a bit longer than the right bar.
[Muaz Kory/Al Jazeera]

Ramadan amid the rubble

Ramadan began about six weeks after the devastating earthquakes. As the fasting month for Muslims approached, Sevim worried about having enough money to prepare iftars for her young son.

She wanted to cheer Yusuf up with good food, even though this year would be a different Ramadan, observed amid rubble and without his beloved father.

“I feel very lucky that this Ramadan came in spring, because there are many things to eat for free as they grow spontaneously in our garden and open fields, so we don't have to go to the neighbourhood market to buy vegetables,” Sevim says.

“I wake up at 3am for suhoor, and it needs to be abundant because it has to keep me full until 7pm,” she says.

To not feel hungry, she naps all afternoon until it is time to prepare iftar.

“Before the earthquake, we were gathering every day in someone’s house to celebrate this important time,” Sevim adds sorrowfully. “Now, not anymore. Each house is mourning. We lost our will to be cheerful. This Ramadan does not feel like other Ramadans.”

All her neighbours have lost family members and their homes. Sevim regrets not having enough money to be able to share a generous iftar with them, but she offers as much help as she can if they need something like salt, flour or olive oil.

“This year it looks like any other normal dinner,” Yusuf says sadly, as he helps his mother lay the table outside. “If there is no rain, we eat on the balcony, because there is a beautiful sunset view, although this year the view is on the rubble.”

For Bayram, Sevim and Yusuf will be joined by her older sons. Despite her limited means, she intends to make the evening look like a feast.

From mid-March to mid-April 2023, as part of a collaborative project, Sevim tracked her monthly expenses with reporter Stefania D’Ignoti. 

Here are the expenses that tested her finances the most.

Expenses over one month

A rainbow appears above the rubble surrounding Artar's house.
A rainbow appears above the rubble surrounding Sevim's house [Photo courtesy of Ayhan Kahriman]
A rainbow appears above the rubble surrounding Sevim's house [Photo courtesy of Ayhan Kahriman]


During the earthquake, the solar panel for hot water which Sevim’s husband installed years ago was damaged and stopped working. Sevim and Yusuf had no hot water for weeks.

Sevim remembers the freezing temperatures in the first days after the earthquake, when people were stranded outside and could only rely on fires and heavy blankets for warmth. As they do not own a car, she says they could not even warm up inside a vehicle with the heating on.

It was also impossible to cook, and in those days a hot meal was what she and Yusuf needed the most, so she made the difficult decision to invest 480 lira ($25) in a gas cylinder for their cooking needs. To date, as authorities have not checked the status of many houses and therefore have not reconnected the gas system, she still uses it to cook. She expects to use it for the coming months, too, so she thinks it was a good investment after all.

“For now the Turkish government is not taking water and electricity money for six months after the tragedy,” Sevim says. But charges for those utilities will start again. Sevim, who currently receives drinking water provided through humanitarian aid, points at the village's pipe system damaged by the quake. "I'm scared about if and when I'll also have to buy a water tank because there will be no more drinkable water,” she says.

March 2022: Gas bill 250 lira ($13)*
March 2023: Gas cylinder 480 lira ($25)

Illustration of consumer products
[Jawahir Al-Naimi and Muaz Kory/Al Jazeera]

House repair costs

This year, expenses changed dramatically for Sevim after the earthquake as she needed to take house repair costs into account. Although her home has no major damage, the walls surrounding the garden have collapsed.

These walls extended for more than 200 metres and had to be repaired.

“Otherwise I don't feel safe and animals, especially cows, goats and sheep can enter the garden and eat my olive trees and vegetables,” she explains.

The cage her late husband built to protect the chickens from foxes also collapsed, and she had to hire a local builder to repair it. “One chicken means one item of our grocery needs (eggs), and we cannot afford to lose even just one, because it will have a big financial impact.”

March 2022: 0 lira*
March 2023: 8,000 lira ($412)

Yusuf Kahriman, Sevim's 15-year old son, takes a break from his hiking on the rubble of his neighbor's house in Altınüzüm.
Yusuf takes a break from hiking on the rubble of his neighbour's house in Altınüzüm [Photo courtesy of Ayhan Kahriman]

Yusuf’s shoes

Yusuf, who is a 10th-grade student at a local high school in Islahiye, the biggest town near their village, is not going to school these days. Towns like Islahiye are too damaged to return to normal life so schools have been closed and will reopen in September.

Yusuf spends most days helping his mother or neighbours and relatives cleaning the debris around their houses. When he has time for himself he loves being in nature and going on hikes in the mountains near his village. But the hiking has worn out his shoes.

“Since it’s Ramadan, and it’s a normal custom to buy new clothes in this period, I decided to invest in a new pair of shoes for him,” Sevim says. She normally buys him new shoes once a year, and since he hikes so much he needs good trainers.

As she did not have to buy him pens, pencils and notebooks for school for the past couple of months, she saved about $10 to put towards his shoes. Although they were more expensive than the previous year, it was not an expense she wanted to skip. After all Yusuf has been through in the past year, she wanted to treat him. “Seeing his smile again has no cost,” Sevim adds.

March 2022: 200 lira ($10)*
March 2023: 450 lira ($23)

Hygiene products

Sevim can no longer afford to buy the same brand for many hygiene and household cleaning products as prices have risen. These products were among the few things she would have to buy from the supermarket since she produces most of the food she eats.

During the early days of the humanitarian response, charity groups like the Turkish Red Crescent and international NGOs distributed free personal care products to women as the main concern was a public health crisis because of a lack of water, toilets and heating.

She managed to retrieve just hand sanitisers and wet wipes. “But what I needed the most was clothes detergent,” she says.

To save money, she has switched to discounted brands bought at the local supermarket, the only one in the village, which had been closed for 55 days and only reopened in time for Ramadan.

March 2022: 120 lira ($6)*
March 2023: 200 lira ($10)

Artar prepares gozleme in her kitchen.
Sevim prepares gozleme in her kitchen [Stefania D'Ignoti/Al Jazeera]


Sevim loves cooking, and lately – since she bought a gas cylinder – it’s the only activity that keeps her busy and makes her feel useful. Although the price of flour has increased exponentially, she still spends more-or-less the same amount as before the earthquake, as she only makes bread for herself and Yusuf.

“I bake two or three loaves of bread for Yusuf's breakfast,” she says. “He does not fast every day, because since I lost my husband, every manly chore has fallen on his shoulders, so he needs energy to be able to help around with heavy physical tasks.”

During the earthquake, boxes and jars of pickled vegetables and flour in the storage area fell and broke, ruining the goods and forcing her to buy new flour. These days she makes börek with wild grasses and gözleme, as well as other types of flatbread.

March 2022: 90 lira ($5)*
March 2023: 150 lira ($8)

The iftar table Artar prepared for her and her son, on the house's balcony.
An iftar Sevim prepared for herself and her son on the balcony of their house [Photo courtesy of Ayhan Kahriman]


Every morning, Sevim goes to her garden and tends to her vegetable patches as well as whatever grows there according to the season. “These herbs are very important for us,” she says, as she points at some wild plants, adding that she manages to save a lot for her groceries just by cultivating her own produce.

Although Sevim has a handful of chickens, she prefers to mainly use them for eggs. She also has two goats, from her late husband’s time as a shepherd, but since he passed away, she only keeps them as pets.

Her main grocery costs are cheese and red meat. “Normally I save because instead of buying from the supermarket, we buy directly from [the] producer,” she says.

Although many local producers lost their animals in the earthquake, she still manages to buy meat directly from farmers and saves money this way, and even buys extra for her sons in Gaziantep.

Living in a village makes her feel safer from a financial point of view, because she knows some things are cheaper compared with the city, and everyone helps each other if someone is missing something. But she has noticed that the earthquake is slowly changing that, and those who have something sometimes sell it at higher prices.

March 2022: 170 lira ($9)*
March 2023: 350 lira ($18)

*Last year's prices were sourced from Sevim and her sons.

A photo of a road with a hole in the middle.
The road leading to Sevim's house was destroyed by the earthquake [Photo courtesy of Ayhan Kahriman]

Five quick questions for Sevim

1. What's one thing you had to forgo this month? Bus tickets. I used to visit my sister in Sanliurfa (a city about a three-hour bus ride from the village) at least once a month but now tickets are too expensive for me, so I have to wait for when she can visit me.

2. What was the hardest financial decision you had to make this month? I received 10,000 lira ($515) from the government as earthquake compensation. I thought for a long time about how to allocate that money, if I really needed to use it to repair the walls of my house next to the garden, or to keep the money for the future. Because I don't know what will happen in the future, I eventually decided to make the short-term decision to fix the house walls.

3. When finances get tough, what advice do you have? Upcycle everything. As villagers, we have an upcycling culture which people who live in the city don't have. We reuse everything until it’s completely consumed. We even use the same plastic shopping bag for six months in a row. I upcycle all glass jars to store pickled vegetables to either sell or keep for myself. The same applies to food: I don’t throw away anything, I can manage to reuse every part of fruit to make teas, jams or creams.

4. What is your biggest money worry? The future. Because we don't know what will happen. Will our savings be enough? After two months, everyone has started talking about “normalisation’’. But what is it? We were producing so many agricultural items and exporting them to other cities. But look around, there is nothing around us any more. If nobody has money, who will buy my olive oil? Who will buy my tomato paste or dry figs? I just want to make enough to not bother my elder sons and provide for Yusuf.

5. What is the saving hack you are proudest of? Çay (Turkish tea) is fundamental to Turkish culture. An average Turk consumes more than 1,000 cups of tea per year; every household has to have it stored at home, especially when we receive guests (even in the earthquake’s aftermath). But since I had to cut many expenses, I found a way to produce my own tea. When I eat cherries, I don’t throw away the stalks: I dry them and put them in a jar to make winter tea. People in the city toss them, but for us even fruit trash is gold. It’s the villager mindset that saved me around $150 a year.

Read more stories from the series: What's your money worth?

Source: Al Jazeera