By Uğur Gonul (YES 2012-2013, Turkey, placed with CIEE in Burkburnett, TX)
It is hard to believe, but it has already been seven years since my return from my host family’s home in Texas to my biological family’s home in İzmir. I was hosted by a great American family in the great state of Texas. I can never adequately express the experience I had there. It really was a life-changing experience. There were a lot of exchange students from different countries in our small region. It was a unique experience because I come from a city of 4.5 million and Burkburnett has a population of 10,000. During my time in the U.S., we also did a lot of community service projects, which inspired me to make community service a long-term habit.
After I returned to Turkey, the civil war in Syria broke out, and millions of people started crossing the Syrian border to Turkey, since there was an open-door policy for people fleeing the war. Since 2014, Turkey has been the country hosting the largest number of refugees in the world. I decided I wanted to do something to support the refugee population, so I started collaborating with Team International for Assistance in Integration (TIAFI). Founded by international volunteers, TIAFI provides support to refugees and helps them integrate into Turkish society. The organization turned a shoe factory into a community center where Syrian refugees and local people could come together.
I decided to write a proposal to support their work and activities that would bring refugees and local community members together in an atmosphere of exchange. I teamed up with YES alumni Onurcan Büyükkalkan (YES ’17) and Sertaç Çalışkan (YES ’17), and we applied for a YES alumni grant. (This is my second project with TIAFI; the first one was funded by the U.S. Embassy in Ankara.)
Our project aimed to establish and safeguard the long-term operation of a Syrian- and Turkish-run kitchen to provide free, nourishing meals at TIAFI’s new community center for vulnerable women and children. The community center is in an area of Izmir with a high number of refugees. By providing free, daily meals, we hope it will be the heart of a community center that provides work, schooling, daycare, support services, and safety for vulnerable families, including single mothers and their children. Additionally, our project provided women at the community center with a source of income. There are sewing machines at the center, so we supplied women with materials to make products they could sell at local markets. We were able to carry out this project despite the pandemic and difficult times.
Approximately 200 people benefited from the project, including 32 children. The project provided free, hot meals but also helped bring Syrian refugees and local Turkish citizens together in an atmosphere that fostered communication and helped dispel fear and stereotypes. Unfortunately, the pandemic stopped us from implementing some parts of our project. We were unable to go to the local markets to sell the handmade products, but we were able to supply the center with sewing materials so they could continue to create products for future sale, such as aprons made out of cat and dog food packaging.
The outcome of this project is very promising. Women are continuing their sewing work thanks to local and international donations, and the community center has become well-known thanks to our social media posts and videos. We hope to continue the partnership with this community center and hope that we inspired other alumni to take action. I would like to thank the U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs for this opportunity.