Back in the US, I had enjoyed many happy hours engaged in hands-on volunteer work, mostly in homeless shelters and food banks. My husband helps everyone he meets. Both of us missed the work, and decided to do something about it. We tossed around some ideas and decided to look into Is Anybody There (Kimse Yok Mu), a Turkish NGO we had heard about. We asked around, and as it turned out one of our best friends, our curtain guy, had an English teacher who knew just the people to talk to. We called and made arrangements to meet the appropriate Kimse Yok Mu parties in Istanbul. After a long interview with some very nice people, we were offered the chance to volunteer with Kimse Yok Mu in a foreign country, which turned out to be Albania.
Instead of staying with our family for the four-day Kurban Bayram (Feast of the Sacrifice), we took off for Tirana, in Albania, to do what we could do to help. About half way there it finally dawned on me that this was a Muslim group, and we were going during one of the most holy times of the Muslim year. It occurred to me that I might be a bit of an intruder, not being Muslim. As often happens, I hadn’t thought of some pretty important things before jumping in with both feet. As it turned out, I needn’t have worried.
Arriving in Tirana
When we got to Tirana, we were met by a group of Turkish and Albanian businessmen who are affiliated with the several Turkish schools in Albania. One of the men was among the original Turks who had gone there in the early 1990s as pioneers in creating cooperation among Albanian businessmen to build schools there. By the time we got there in 2008, there were several schools, and the first generation of Turkish school graduates were already successful businessmen themselves and active in the businessmen’s program to build more and even better schools. The schools emphasize the learning of English as well as Turkish. My husband tells me their Turkish was perfect, and I can attest to their English. Their presence was a godsend, because Albanian is different from any language we had ever heard, although very beautiful. All the men and families we met seemed very happy to be working with each other and very comfortable hosting their Turkish guests for Bayram. Although we stayed in a hotel, our hosts were with us all the time except at night.
The organization on the Albanian end was flawless. Every morning we were picked up after breakfast and whisked off to the day’s work. The first full day, we went to the immaculate slaughterhouse, where the sacrifice animals were awaiting their fate. I didn’t go inside, but all the others, men and women both, went in to participate in the sacrifice. Our Turkish team leader, Orhan Bey, had a long list of donors who had given their sacrifice money to Kimse Yok Mu, and as each animal was ritually killed, he read from the list and the animal was designated as a particular donor’s sacrifice. My husband tells me it was a very moving ceremony. Whereas in a regular sacrifice back home, each family would give one-third of the meat to the poor, one-third to family and neighbors and keep one-third for their own family, all of this meat was to go to poor families in Albania. This took a great deal of organization and work, and we had many Albanian volunteers to help our team, mostly students and teachers from the Turkish schools. Cars and vans were provided, and for that day and the next, the meat was wrapped, bagged and loaded, and off we went to many neighborhoods in several towns. Special trips were made into the remote part of the mountains, where teachers at the schools knew of families in need.
During the entire period, our stops were timed to accommodate the four remaining prayer times during the day (the first prayer was before we were picked up, and performed privately). Sometimes we went to mosques, sometimes to the Turkish schools, but stop for prayers we did. For the first two days and part of the third, I felt pretty self-conscious, because I was the only one not praying with the rest. At the schools, I went with the ladies to the rooms where they did their ablutions and changed clothes. They were very kind and loving to me, which I appreciated enormously. But when we stopped at mosques, I just sort of hung around and took photographs. Some time during the afternoon of the third day, it came out that I was a Roman Catholic lady. I certainly wasn’t keeping it secret; I just assumed the team knew, because Kimse Yok Mu in İstanbul knew. I got so many apologies! For what, you might ask? My team was very sorry they hadn’t known, because they would have built in time for me to pray at a church! What dumfounded me, and showed me how classy these people really were, was that they had thought I was Muslim choosing not to pray five times a day. To me, that denoted a deeper tolerance than merely accepting a Christian in their midst. How kind they were!
Our lunches and dinners were hosted by local schools, as well as various businessmen who wanted to help the project. We had embarrassingly sumptuous meals on many occasions, too many and too varied to describe. I must mention, however, the Albanian knack with fish. I love Turkish food better than anything, but I must say the different kinds and preparations of fish that we had in Albania were absolutely world-class. But whether we shared lunch with the school faculty in their lunchroom, or (our favorite) fresh tomatoes, cheese and bread with the start-up staff of a new facility on the grounds of a dilapidated old Ottoman mansion-turned-Communist-administration-building, we enjoyed to the fullest meals shared with friends.
On the last night, we had a beautiful farewell dinner in a replica Ottoman castle, hosted by the owner of the restaurant. We toasted with Fanta, laughed at bad jokes, grabbed cooperative children from other tables for hugs and had a bittersweet end to our Kurban Bayram. So if you want to do something a little different this Bayram, think about volunteering, whether it’s with Kimse Yok Mu or another NGO, in Turkey or out. Be prepared to pay your own expenses, but don’t be surprised if you end up having the adventure of your life. Remember the curtain guy? His brothers and father do this every year in southeastern Turkey. They have a different time of it, but they wouldn’t trade their experiences for the world.
* Elsie Alan lives in a house she and her husband are finishing, in Kocaeli, near Gebze.