The following experience from Turkey is by far not the usual volunteer work. Yet we believe it is a great example of what AFS can be if we work hard and are courageous.
It’s another AFS weekend and this one starts at 4 a.m. on a Friday. Our flights are at 6.30, one of us leaving from Istanbul, the other from Izmir. Get up, get dressed, get ready and hit the road. We have a brief chat on the phone around 5 o’clock.
- Are you ready?
- I’m already in the taxi. You?
- Cool, I’m leaving home right now. Nervous?
- A bit. My friends think that I’m crazy and I couldn’t tell my mom that I was going. She would go nuts.
- Same here, but hey, it’ll be alright.
- I know. See you in Ankara.
Two separate flights takes us both to Ankara. First leg of the trip is now completed. At 7.30 we hug each other. We are excited and to be honest, yes, a bit nervous. Another two hour flight and we find ourselves in a tiny airport in the eastern city of Van. We call our contact teacher. She tells us that a vehicle will pick us up soon, just wait outside the airport. Sure enough, a small commercial vehicle soon stops by. Two gentlemen greet us and take our bags. On the way to Van city centre, we chat a bit about how tense the atmosphere is after a very long summer during which, hundreds of lives have been lost to bombings and clashes. "All we want is peace" the driver says, "we want them all to leave us be."
We are then transported to a small bus and our 4 hour journey starts. The road is long and winding through mountains and canyons. We’ve seen this view before, many times, in France, Italy, Austria; it is just like the Alps - but with a twist. There are watch towers and security check points all along the way. We are going to Hakkari, or Colemerg as the locals call it in Kurdish; a small city locked in between mountains, stuck between Iraq and Iran. A city associated with unrest, exploding bombs and endless fights between the Turkish Army and the Kurdish rebel groups. When the bus driver learns that we are coming from the west, he starts explaining us the area: the ancient castle up there, the beautiful valley down below, and constantly repeats the same theme as our previous driver - we want peace!
It’s now 3 o’clock in the afternoon and we enter the city. We quickly leave our bags to the hotel and head to the high school we are being waited for, passing by military vehicles such that we have only seen on TV before. We go through the gates of the school and there’s a festive air awaiting us. The teachers, the students, everyone hugs us, kisses us, greets us as if we are celebrities. “I can’t believe that you are here” one student says with a huge smile on her face. “We have been promised so much before, but all have been forgotten. We never actually thought you would come” another adds. We are a bit confused - we are here only to do the first stage of the AFS student assessment for the 2016-2017 year program.
The story actually started eight months ago. In a volunteer training in Istanbul, we have met a very special teacher, mother of two AFS’ers, who has decided to go to Hakkari to teach for a year. She tells us how incredible her students are and if we could do something, anything for her pupils. The light in her eyes becomes an inspiration for us and in two months, we prepare a short-term exchange for eleven students to come and visit Izmir.
At the end of May, the students arrive and are placed with local families. They attend workshops especially designed for them, go on cultural visits and take part in daily life. One week passes quick and the students go back home, but they never leave us. They write us several times a week, send us photographs, call us, keep us up to date of their lives over there, far far away. Meanwhile, the fighting gets intense in the area and this time we start calling them day and night, just to check that they are safe and sound.
At the same time, they talk to their friends and families. They tell the people around them what an experience this one-week exchange has been and that there’s this thing called AFS, an international student exchange program. Autumn comes, and they tell us that they want to apply. “Sure” we say, “Here’s how to. We would be very happy.”
In couple of weeks, we receive over 90 applications. We pinch ourselves, can this be true? 90 applications from Hakkari, it’s magic. Even if one of them is found eligible, can you imagine its impact on this city? Hence, it’s a very special AFS weekend for us and it started at 4 a.m.
The first stage of the AFS student assessment is a multiple-choice test. It’s an evaluation based on general knowledge and skill. The students fill the classrooms at 9 a.m. on Saturday morning. We distribute the papers and start the clock. Will they be able to do it? With so much inequality they are facing, how will they fare compared to students in much more prosperous parts of the country? We don’t yet know the answer, but we get a hunch: They will do just fine. And soon we see the reason as we talk with their teachers. What they may lack in physical conditions, they compensate with the help of some of the most amazingly idealist teachers we have ever seen. Some of the teachers confide in us: “I was shattered with horror when I first heard that I was appointed to Hakkari” one says. “But, the city has changed me. I was afraid of the unknown, and now that I know the place, I don’t want to leave.”
The test is over, but the students don’t leave us. They grab us from both arms, “you are here for us, we can’t just go, we’ll show you our city” they say. And the day goes like that, one door opens another, and by sunset, we might have met half the city.
It is not the poverty that strikes us the most, nor the countless military vehicles. It’s the lack of hope we observe, for things not changing ever. And by just coming to Hakkari, we give them something: a small, very small hope for one small change in this city. A hope that not even themselves, but perhaps a friend, one of their own might be selected for an AFS year somewhere far away to see a different world. And we cannot wipe the smile off our faces for we know that we have a part in that. But the real credit is not ours; it belongs to one courageous AFS volunteer, 52, mother of two, who has chosen willingly to leave her home and come to teach here. She’s the one who started it all. Next morning, we pack our bags and leave Hakkari to go back home, but we sure leave our hearts in this city locked in between mountains.
We already know what a great thing AFS is, but we may sometimes get stuck in the routine of events and forget to step back and look at the bigger picture. Sure, AFS is a great acronym for another fat student, and that’s fun. But it is also born out of the courage of some young men who were brave enough to help save lives working as ambulance drivers in battle fields, and some have given their lives while doing that. It is these courageous young men who have started the AFS exchange programs to contribute to world peace. And along with this legacy that we inherit, comes a huge responsibility: Working for peace requires diligence and courage, and we need to have them both more than ever right now. For we are not just a student exchange program, we are AFS Volunteers.
Turkish AFS Volunteers will continue reporting their works in Hakkari. If you wish to support us, please do contact AFS Volunteers Association of Turkey (firstname.lastname@example.org) or TKV/AFS Turkey (email@example.com).
Thank you for this great post and congratulations to all the AFS volunteers and staff involved in creating this wonderful initiative which I believe serves the AFS mission directly. Looking forward to hearing about many other great outcomes of these efforts and maybe even stories of participants who might get to go on AFS exchanges.
What an amazing and inspiring story! Congratulations to all of those involved!