- Its founder, Hamdi Ulukaya, is a Turkish immigrant of Kurdish descent.
- There are calls to boycott Chobani. Ulukaya and the company have been taunted with racist epithets on Twitter and Facebook.
- Ulukaya arrived in upstate New York in the 1990s to attend school. By 2002 he was making and selling feta cheese inspired by a family recipe.
By many measures, Chobani embodies the classic American immigrant success story.
Its founder, Hamdi Ulukaya, is a Turkish immigrant of Kurdish descent. He bought a defunct yogurt factory in upstate New York, added a facility in Twin Falls, Idaho, and now employs about 2,000 people making Greek yogurt.
But in this election season, the extreme right has a problem with Chobani: In its view, too many of those employees are refugees.
As Ulukaya has stepped up his advocacy — employing more than 300 refugees in his factories, starting a foundation to help migrants, and traveling to the Greek island of Lesbos to witness the crisis firsthand — he and his company have been targeted with racist attacks on social media and conspiratorial articles on websites including Breitbart News.
Now there are calls to boycott Chobani. Ulukaya and the company have been taunted with racist epithets on Twitter and Facebook. Fringe websites have published false stories claiming Ulukaya wants “to drown the United States in Muslims.” And the mayor of Twin Falls has received death threats, partly as a result of his support for Chobani.
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“What’s happening with Chobani is one more flash point in this battle between the voices of xenophobia and the voices advocating a rational immigration policy,” said Cecillia Wang, director of the Immigrants’ Rights Project at the American Civil Liberties Union.
Chobani and Ulukaya declined to comment for this article.
Ulukaya arrived in upstate New York in the 1990s to attend school. By 2002 he was making and selling feta cheese inspired by a family recipe. A few years later he learned that a local yogurt and cheese factory that had closed was for sale. He received a loan of $800,000 from the Small Business Administration to purchase the factory and started selling Chobani yogurt in 2007.
As the business grew, Ulukaya needed more help. When he learned there was a refugee resettlement center in a nearby town, he asked whether any of the newcomers wanted jobs at Chobani. Ulukaya provided transportation for the new hires, and he brought in translators to assist them. He paid the refugee workers salaries above the minimum wage, as he did other workers at the factory.
When Chobani opened its factory in Twin Falls, Ulukaya once again turned to a local resettlement center. The company now employs resettled refugees from Iraq, Afghanistan and Turkey, among other countries.
“The minute a refugee has a job, that’s the minute they stop being a refugee,” Ulukaya said in a talk he gave this year.
Today, Chobani has annual yogurt sales of around $1.5 billion.
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