These US-based organizations strive to provide a deeper, more accurate understanding of Turkey by offering foreigners a unique cultural immersion experience.
The Turquoise Council is an independent umbrella organization that works to foster interactions between Americans of Turkish and Eurasian descent and the wider community.
The Atlas Foundation is one of its member organizations in Louisiana. both organizations coordinate trips to Turkey for Americans who desire an authentic, well-rounded experience.
As far as cultural exchange programs go, these trips may appear short -- typically nine to 10 days -- but Turquoise Council President Kemal Öksüz said that “our trips provide an intensive, informative view of Turkish society on a broad scale.”
Atlas Foundation Louisiana President Bilal Hacıoğulları affirmed the originality of these simultaneously short and in-depth cultural exchange experiences. “There is no seminar or teaching. The trips offer an opportunity for the participants to experience a different environment directly,” he said.
Hacıoğulları said that participants get to visit historic sites, museums, places of worship and civil society organizations. They also are also welcomed by locals into their homes, where they share meals and chat over tea.
Louisiana meets Turkey
Their group, consisting also of journalists, professors and a university dean, traveled throughout Turkey, from the bustling streets of İstanbul to the ancient ruins of Ephesus and the fairy chimneys of Cappadocia.
Ritter admitted she initially struggled with coming to Turkey. Her mother had recently died, and she said she naturally was having a very difficult time coming to terms with it. Her thoughts were anywhere but on a trip to Turkey, but her husband had been planning on participating and eventually convinced her to accompany him.
Brady said that he and his wife, Karen, had often thought about visiting Turkey. They knew that the Turkish people had a rich and fascinating culture and had heard from friends how diverse the land and people were.
One night the group learned that they would be having dinner at a school in Niğde. But they were in no way prepared for the surprise that had been planned specifically for their group. Children danced in traditional costumes representing countries from around the world. The group met and feasted with Turkish families who would host them in their homes later that evening. And they were impressed by a demonstration of paper marbling, a unique and traditional art that is so dear to Turkey. For both Brady and Ritter, this was this evening that had the most profound impact on them.
“What a marvelous evening we had at the school,” Brady said. “We had a once in a lifetime opportunity to see, mingle and interact on an ‘up close and personal’ level with the people of a wonderful and dynamic country.”
Ritter had a similar experience with her host family. After the Turkish couple welcomed her and her husband into their home, Ritter said she was shocked to learn that evening that they were also suffering a pain all too familiar to her.
“The family we stayed with had lost a child several months earlier and their belief, in the midst of incredible grief, was to be part of their community hosting our group and opening their home and hearts to us,” Ritter said.
Ritter said the kindness, generosity and perseverance of this Turkish couple in the face of tragedy gave her renewed hope. “One thing I can say now with certainty, as a Christian, is that there is more that unites us with the Muslim community than divides us,” Ritter shared.
“The issues of raising children, caring for aging parents, dealing with illness and death, devotion to spirituality and religion, and finding time to contribute to one’s community are universal,” she said.
But these experiences hold meaning for the host families as well.
The Ay family had never hosted foreigners before in their home in the small Central Anatolian town of Niğde. In fact, the family had moved less than a year ago from İstanbul and had not yet had the opportunity to entertain in their new home.
But when Fatih Ay and his wife, Suzan, were asked one day if they could host two Americans, they did not hesitate for a moment. “We were very excited. We had lots of questions in our minds, like what they would be like, if we would be able to communicate, if they would like us,” Ay admitted.
When asked about his first foreign guests, Ay said: “We thank God for such a beautiful experience. We only had a brief time together but we learned so much. I think we really understand each other.”
Ay stressed the importance of these trips for both foreigners and Turks, especially as someone who has not yet stepped foot on American soil. Before meeting his American guests, Ay said that his honest preconceptions of America were that of war and Hollywood.
“We learn about America through the media,” he said. He added that these trips are crucial because even in an era when communication is easier than ever before, communities still do not know one other. Hacıoğulları affirmed: “These experiences allow both visitors and hosts to see each other as fellow humans. They discover that people are much closer to peaceful coexistence than the mass media leads us to think.”
Both Ritter and Brady agreed it was from relationships they formed in Turkey that they learned the most. “I found the Turkish people to be very warm” Ritter said. “The willingness to exchange ideas, to speak about difficult issues facing both countries and come away a better person was the most precious part of the trip.”
Brady said the generosity and hospitality of the Turks he met especially resonated with him.
Hacıoğulları underscored the power of dialogue, “There is magic in two humans communicating with each other directly in a hospitable atmosphere.”
More on Turkey trips
The Turquoise Council began organizing trips to Turkey in 2009, when it was founded. Its member organizations, however, are older and have been coordinating such trips since late 2004. The Atlas Foundation has been coordinating trips to Turkey since 2005.
Based in Houston, the Turquoise Council is active in Texas, Arkansas, Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, New Mexico and Oklahoma.
In addition to the relationships formed as a result of these trips, Hacıoğulları said that some tangible projects have also been initiated, such as the “sister city agreement” between Baton Rouge and Malatya and American-Turkish friendship groups in the Louisiana State Legislature.
Öksüz said that similar trips exist for Turks who wish to have a deeper understanding of America.