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US yogurt billionaire's solution to immigration: 'Humanity first'

Hamdi Ulukaya, who built yogurt empire Chobani after immigrating to the US in the mid-90s, is challenging Am...

Posted: Oct 1, 2018 3:40 PM
Updated: Oct 1, 2018 3:40 PM

Hamdi Ulukaya, who built yogurt empire Chobani after immigrating to the US in the mid-90s, is challenging Americans to rethink the way they view immigration.

"I have nothing against America first, but 'humanity first too,'" said Ulukaya in an exclusive interview with CNN on the sidelines of an event for his nonprofit, called Tent Partnership for Refugees.

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Ulukaya has sought to keep his mission of assisting refugees above the political fray. But on occasion he has denounced the administration's immigration policies and the way it enforces them. The issue is deeply personal for Ulukaya -- a self-made billionaire who grew up tending goat and sheep in rural Turkey.

Ulukaya started recruiting immigrants and refugees to work at Chobani in 2010 -- a strategy that drew vicious attacks from far right-wing conspiracy theorists who have spread lies about the company, including allegations Chobani embarked on a secret plot to increase America's Islamic population.

America as a 'magic land'

About 30 percent of Chobani's employees are immigrants or refugees. He says his employees and suppliers are worried.

"They ask, 'What's gonna happen to me, will I be able to see my mother, or if they're gonna come and visit me?' Or if you talk to farmers in Idaho, they will say, 'Will I be able to find workers?'"

Ulukaya calls America a "magic land," alluding to its historic standing as a beacon of hope and opportunity.

"Above and beyond all, I hope the idea of magic land doesn't get damaged," said Ulukaya.

Over the last several years, Ulukaya has been making a passionate pitch to assist refugees through Tent, Ulukaya's nonprofit dedicated to helping improve the lives of refugees. He argues that resources, especially from corporate America, should grow to match a historic migration crisis that has displaced over 65 million people worldwide, including 25 million refugees.

Ulukaya, who launched Tent in 2016, has successfully urged companies to develop solutions by "mobilizing resources, innovation and the entrepreneurial spirit of the business community."

"They [companies] all know that if you don't find the way to solve this problem, or make it easier, this human tragedy is going to turn into one of the biggest problems for our children going forward," he said.

This week, Tent added 20 brands to a growing list of partners pledging to hire refugees or help them build a better life. The latest companies to commit to the cause include Hilton, pasta maker Barilla, Microsoft and Uniqlo. In total, Tent has secured promises from more than 100 companies.

Ulukaya is alleviating the plight of refugees at a time when the US government is reducing foreign aid and lowering the number of refugees the US will admit.

Addressing the United Nations General Assembly, President Donald Trump said the US is "taking a hard look" at the foreign aid it sends to other countries and the financial support it provides to international organizations.

"Moving forward we are only going to give foreign aid to those who respect us and frankly our -- our friends. And we expect other countries to pay their fair share for the cost of their defense," said Trump, who added that a global migration crisis could be resolved by making every country "great again."

Earlier this month, his administration announced a refugee cap of 30,000 in 2019 — the lowest level since 1980. The move comes at a time when European leaders are grappling with an unprecedented wave of refugees and migrants over the last several years — many of them from war-torn Syria.

"Even if governments were stepping up to do the right thing, which many, including the US government, are not, the crisis is too big for government," said Samantha Power, the former US ambassador to the United Nations from 2013 to 2017, as she presented Ulukaya the Atlantic Council's Global Citizen Award this week.

Who is Hamdi Ulukaya?

The yogurt magnate embodies the American dream. A Kurd from Turkey, Ulukaya immigrated to the US after the Turkish government started to question his political activities advocating for Kurdish rights. The Kurds are Turkey's largest ethnic minority. For much of the 20th century, the state oppressed the Kurdish community, referring to Kurds as "Mountain Turks" and banning the use of their language.

In 2005, Ulukaya bought a defunct food factory in upstate New York with a small business loan to start making yogurt. He eventually grew that into Chobani, which has become the top-selling Greek yogurt brand in the US. Several years after opening his factory, he started hiring refugees who lived in nearby areas.

He tapped the refugee community again in Idaho when Chobani opened a plant in Twin Falls, which is close to the dairy farmers who supply the raw material for his yogurt. Because of his efforts to hire and help refugees, Ulukaya has become the target of far-right websites and bloggers. One site accused Chobani of "call[ing] on [the] biggest American companies to join [an] Islamic surge."

The incendiary far-right conspiracy theorist Alex Jones was forced to apologize after accusing Chobani of supporting "migrant rapists" who spread disease in Twin Falls.

CORRECTION: This story has been updated to correct the location of some concerned farmers referenced by Ulukaya and to reflect that he received a small business loan to start making yogurt.

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