By: Jasmin Anderson
Hey there, wanderlusters! If you read my last article 5 Things Learned While Living Abroad–see no. 3), you’ll know that the end goal shouldn’t be living abroad. In fact, getting there, getting a job, and settling are just the beginning. Perhaps the most difficult part of living abroad is finding your community, and more importantly impacting that community for the better.
I’ve interviewed two friends who’ve not only found their communities, but are actively working to integrate themselves and participate in their lives abroad. The first is Tahiya from Durbin, South Africa. We were friends, co-workers, and roommates in Istanbul.
How long have you been living in Istanbul?
Since November 2015.
How has Istanbul changed you, and how have you seen the city change in the past couple of years?
Istanbul being a big city, it’s very different to where I come from. I come from a country where life is quite laid back, quite chill, and Istanbul is the antithesis of that. Life never stops [in Istanbul], it forces you to be on your toes, constantly moving. It’s a vibrant city where your always meeting people from new backgrounds. There’s always something new. In that way it’s opened me up to meet people I most likely would not have met, had I not come to the city.
In terms of what’s changed, considering the situation here politically, I think a lot has changed. The demographic of people visiting the country has shifted a bit. When I first moved here it was very much European-based tourists. And now we’re seeing more of a shift to the Arab world, like people from the Emirates and Saudis.
For me the main change has been the feeling among the locals. When I first moved here, there was a much more open optimistic feeling from the locals. Now considering what’s happened* their interactions with foreigners have changed quite a lot.
Negatively or positively?
I wouldn’t say negative, they are just less open than they used to be. Obviously, they are far more concerned about what’s happening politically with their country. Locals are bit more reserved and quiet than they used to be.
What’s the evolution of your life been in Istanbul? Including work and how you pass your time.
We were teaching here at the school which was very trying, challenging, trying, time consuming. I’m trying to find the least hateful word here. It was a challenge. Extremely challenging. So much that when I left the city in 2016, I was kind of done with the city, purely based on my job. Purely based on the fact that I’d lived here for a year and a half and I felt like hadn’t experienced the city at all. I was working so hard in a job that was unstructured and wasn’t benefiting me as I hoped. It was actually preventing me from experiencing the city. So I left for home in early 2016 for a few months. And when I decided to come back, I wanted to integrate myself into the society as I had hoped to initially. So on coming back I shifted my focus from solely teaching English. I was going to use it as a source of income, but I wanted to put my focus more into the communities in Istanbul, the Turkish communities, but also the refugee communities that were here. And my path that led me to the work I’m doing now was very much trial and error. I cam across a few people on Facebook, bumped into a few people in cafes. Which led me to the organizations I work with now.
Can you detail how you got involved, and then tell us some more about the organizations themselves?
My favorite organization I’m working with is called Istanbul and I. I was looking for places not just to volunteer, but to create impact and social change…I contacted a bunch of NGO’s, only about 20 percent got back to me. I finally got into contact with a young man, who was working with a youth community. I bumped into him at a cafe. It was very meet cute. He told me the whole aim of this youth empowerment community was for a group of young people to share their network and skills to encourage social impact and empower communities in Turkey. Not only the refugees, but Turkish, Kurdish, any disadvantage communities.
From there it kind of snowballed, I got involved with other projects and kind of stuck myself in. Through that organization, I stumbled across a community center in Balat, Istanbul. It’s a center completely dedicated to looking after and taking care of Syrian children. Also integrating them, getting them into school, and also helping their families.
So everything kind of bounced off each other. Meeting one person which led to another. It let me get my foot in the door with NGO community, which can be very exclusive. It’s the most difficult thing, the exclusivity….they don’t aim to be, but they are. It’s never really accessible. It’s really word of mouth and meeting people to get stuck in as I am now.
What are the most meaningful projects or interactions you’ve worked on?
The first big project I worked on was last year in December. Istanbul and I held their first social impact summit. So we got some small funding from the US consulate here, and I was one the directors. It was completely by chance, I got pushed into it from another director because I do marketing. The aim was to create a two day summit for young people to come in and meet people in the field, people from the UN, from women’s empowerment organizations, and professors. And basically learn about what is needed in communities, what ideas could be possible, and what the problems are within the communities of Istanbul. We gave them a chance to submit their ideas, and the winning three ideas were given funds to start those projects. For me the cool part was being given a tiny budget and we had to create an entire summit from scratch, finding locations, panelists, speakers, everything down to feeding people. It was A to Z how to plan a conference. I got to meet people from about 25 different countries, some even flew in for it. It was amazing.
Another project I worked on is Çay Talks (pronounced ‘chai,’ which means tea in Turkish). The point of Çay Talks is to bring people together to discuss and debate everyday topics. It brings people together in Istanbul, whether you’re an expat or a local. It brings people together in a safe space, with some ҫay in true Turkish style. To meet new people and discuss, and to do it a slightly less formal way, but also with structure, so it’s not just hanging out. There’s a director, there’s a theme. It encourages people to ask questions they wouldn’t usually ask, and get answers they wouldn’t usually get because they don’t know people from this many backgrounds, and countries, and religions, and races.
I saw the video of your last one, it looked amazing!
We’ve just gotten the International Organization for Migration, or IOM, to get on board and sponsor us…so each event is now completely free. They pay for all the ҫay, so you basically come and chill. And what’s so cool, is that every venue we’ve worked with has not charged us anything. So we created this with no funding, no budget, and everything covered.
Are you fluent in Turkish?
My Turkish was fluent, but now that I work with Syrians, my Turkish level has gone down to pre-intermediate, and my Arabic has gone up. So it’s bittersweet, my Turkish has gotten worse, but my Arabic has improved a lot.
Did you study it, or just pick it up?
It was more working with Turks, taking public transport, going to the grocery store. Learning it very haphazardly. Learning because you have to, going to the pharmacy to get medicine…I can hold a decent conversation in Turkish and now in Arabic too.
Have you considered living in Istanbul permanently? I know your going to grad school in London, so what are you thinking after that? Will you go back?
I love Istanbul. It’s a very unique city, where you can have a love/hate relationship with it. You adore the city, but sometimes you want to hide. At the moment my path is taking me to the UK, but Turkey is kind of the geo-political center of the world. In terms of the work I want to do after grad school, I don’t think there’s a better place to get stuck in than Turkey, but again, the political situation here is very unsettling. So it’s hard to say what’s going to happen in the 5 or 10 years, or even the next 5 to 10 months…but if there’s a chance to come back to Turkey, especially Istanbul, I would jump at it, for sure, so long as it’s relatively safe.
Last question: What does home mean to you?
Ah, that’s a…what does home mean, I don’t know. I would love to say home is where my family is, that’s what I feel like I should be saying…I would say this: home is wherever you feel safe….I heard a talk once and the [speaker talked about] the opposite of loneliness. The feeling of being able to be alone, but being a part of a bigger community, something bigger than you. That’s the opposite of loneliness, that makes you not feel alone, wherever you might be. It’s that feeling of not being lonely. Home changes, but it’s where you feel safe and not alone. Where you’re part of something bigger and part of something that meaningful. So Istanbul is as much a home as South Africa is.
Isn’t she a peach? After two years of not living in the same country, or even the same continent, Tahiya and I have kept in contact. It’s a rare friend who keeps in touch with you throughout your travels, and even rarer to find one who inspires you.
Please find a link to Istanbul and I and a video of the Çay Talks below:
Stay tuned next week for another friend, another country, and another story!
*Turkey has been experiencing a lot of political and social unrest in the past couple of years. There was an attempted military coup in the summer of 2016, as well increasing instances of terror attacks all over Istanbul.