The quest of the one-armed shepherd

Irfan Toreci, a one-armed shepherd, has captured the attention of Turkey's media by winning a prestigious university place.

September 5, 2008: Irfan, who is a shepherd with only one arm at Yuksekova district of Hakkari, is accepted to the Hacettepe University by his determination. 

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ISTANBUL // Irfan Toreci, a young shepherd with only one arm, who grew up in a two-room mud brick hovel that housed a family of 12 in Turkey's poor southeastern province of Hakkari, has become the hero of an unlikely success story after he beat the odds to win a place at a prestigious university. Donors are promising to provide him with grants to become a doctor. "I am happy right now," Mr Toreci, 18, said in a telephone interview from Hakkari. "When I am a doctor, I will definitely return to my home to help people here." Mr Toreci won his place at Hacettepe University in the capital, Ankara, one of the top universities in Turkey, in a nationwide test this summer. Since then, Mr Toreci has become something of a celebrity. "Shepherd from Hakkari goes to Hacettepe to study medicine," ran a typical newspaper headline. Mr Toreci said the media attention made him uneasy. "I did work as a shepherd, but I do not want the fuss," he said. Still, he has used interviews with Turkish media to remind his fellow citizens that his situation throws a spotlight on the discrepancy in living conditions, medical facilities and chances for education between his poor Anatolian home region and the more affluent rest of the country.

"There is little investment here in any area," he said in a telephone interview. Held back by poverty and a low-intensity war between Kurdish guerrillas and the Turkish military, the predominantly Kurdish area in Turkey's south-east trails other regions in terms of wealth and social development. According to the latest available statistics, the average per-capita income in Turkey according to purchasing power is US$9,670 (Dh35,500) a year, but in southeastern Anatolia it is only $5,260. A study completed in 2006 found that the 21 provinces in Turkey's east and south-east scored 0.631 points on the UN Human Development Index, which measures education, access to medical facilities and other factors of quality of life. Turkey in general was much more advanced with 0.750 points at the time; it stands at 0.775 presently, while the UAE scores 0.868 points. Even with Mr Toreci's success, Hakkari was one of two provinces that did especially poorly in the recent university entrance exam. That inequality might be one of the reasons he is disabled today, Mr Toreci told Turkish reporters during a recent visit in Ankara. "If there had been a doctor around at the time, maybe I would not have lost my arm," he said.

In the telephone interview, Mr Toreci said he was not optimistic that things will improve in his home region in the near future. "I don't think that things will change a lot." When he was five, Mr Toreci lost his right arm after he touched an electric cable that had fallen on a house during a fire in his village. He said his parents brought him into a local hospital, but there was no doctor there who could help him. The boy was sent to a bigger hospital in Van, the capital of a neighbouring province, but it was too late. "Until we got to Van, it was over," Mr Toreci told the Turkish news channel NTV. "Later, they cut it off," he said about his arm. The son of a farmer and one of 10 children, Mr Toreci shone as a pupil in primary school, which enabled him to go on to Yuksekova Super Lisesi, a high school for talented youths, where he finished first in his class. In his summer breaks, he helped his family by tending his father's sheep while cramming for school. With the support of teachers from his school and a dershane, a private school that helps youngsters prepare for the university entrance exam, and after studying 10 hours a day before the test, he scored well enough to win a place at Hacettepe. Sinav Dershaneleri, the company that helped Mr Toreci train for the exam, said he did not have to pay for the lessons because particularly bright students were supported by offering them free courses. Sinav Dershaneleri has started to use Mr Toreci's name in ads. But while Mr Toreci's success was being celebrated by media across the country, it also meant new problems for his family. One of his brothers has been studying social services at Hacettepe, and although public universities such as Hacettepe offer a free education, the family is too poor to support two students. To raise money, Mr Toreci went public. "I want a grant for six to seven years," he told NTV. "You know that studying medicine is very expensive." He did not have to wait long for pledges from potential donors. Sinav Deshaneleri announced the company would give him a grant of 500 lira (Dh1,480) a month for seven years. Welcoming Mr Toreci to Ankara, the company also presented him with a laptop. At the same time, a foundation of one of Turkey's largest family-run companies, Sabanci, said it would support Mr Toreci with a second grant. A well-known professional football player, Umit Ozat, of the German first-league club Cologne, said he also would like to help the young man. And the governor of Hakkari province, Ayhan Nasuhbeyoglu, said he was trying to raise money to provide Mr Toreci with an artificial limb. Mr Toreci sounded bitter about what he said were many empty promises of help. "There has been a lot of talk," he said. "But nobody calls or anything. So far the only thing I have is the grant from Sinav." Meanwhile, he has started to talk to university officials about what branch of medicine is possible for him, given that he has only one arm. "I haven't made a final decision yet, but I am thinking about psychiatry" after basic medical studies, he said. He has also used his new celebrity status to draw attention to living conditions in south-eastern Anatolia. Doctors and teachers who are sent to the region by the state start looking for a way out immediately because they do not want to live in a poor and backward region, he said. "They try to go back [to western regions of Turkey] straightaway," he told Turkish media. "It is almost as if people there were not human." Coming from a region where most people speak Kurdish at home and have to learn Turkish in school, Mr Toreci also called for Kurdish to be accepted as a language in the university entrance test. "We got used to it," Mr Toreci said about the Turkish language. "But if it had been Kurdish [in the test], it would have been much easier and quicker. Instead of the 25 minutes I needed for the Turkish questions, I would have finished in 10 minutes."