It has been a tough year in Turkey, no need to sugar-coat it. When the AFS Volunteers organized the first Hakkari - Izmir Local Exchange in 2015, we were talking of peace throughout the country. Things were getting better; things were going to be much much better. We were going to laugh together, sing together, dance together. Then it didn't happen... Then bombs started exploding. Then people started dying in hundreds. Fighting moved from the mountains to the town centers. In the last 12 months, more than one thousand lives have been lost. And a large chunk of hope as well. "I haven't seen my parents since the beginning of February" one of our project participants - studying at the boarding section of HAAL - said. "The roads are closed; I cannot go home." The Second Edition Preparations for the second edition of the Hakkari - Izmir Local Exchange started in such an environment this year. The feeling was much less festive, much less cheerful, but definitely much more determined. Nobody promised us that working for peace was going to be easy and we were living it first-hand. We were going to struggle to find sponsors, perhaps even host families. Then again, where was the satisfaction in achieving an easy victory anyway? Finding sponsors did prove difficult as we had guessed. We had required a fund of 10,000 TL (approx. 3,400 USD) for the exchange week. A month to the project, we still had nothing. So we decided to seek help within our own network. A crowd-funding effort once again proved our volunteers' great solidarity and dedication for peace. Within ten days, before we could even say "Hey, thanks, that's enough", we were 30% over our target. One of the most important hurdles was over! (AFS Volunteers will use the remaining budget again for their works in Hakkari.) Finding host families was no such struggle though. True, big social difficulties polarize people, but we noticed that a lot of people, especially compared to previous years and partly due to the success of the project last year, were being mobilized towards peace. That gave us a big hope and strength: we were doing something right! The students arrived at Izmir on May 21st, after a very long journey involving a 4 hour bus ride and a 2 hour flight. After a brief orientation, they were welcomed by their host families. The volunteers had organized a very intense program for the students throughout the week. It was full of cultural visits, workshops and training sessions. The week was built around a certain theme: a multi-colored and plural society. The students met different social, ethnic and religious groups that make up Izmir, their host city. They visited natural reserves, universities, places of worship, museums. They attended arts workshops and symphonic orchestra rehearsals. They even tried, albeit not so successfully, to eat noodles using chopsticks. We discussed various topics, from environmental concerns to volunteerism, freedom of expression to university life, but above all, the importance of cross-cultural understanding.
The last day was a visit to the ancient city of Ephesus. After visiting the ruins and getting briefed by the archaeologists working in the area under scorching heat, everyone was exhausted sitting on the steps of the ancient theatre. Then the music came. And on the marble stage of that 2,500-year old amphitheatre, hand in hand, we all once again laughed together, sang together, danced together.
At the end of the week, when we asked the question about her mini-AFS experience, "No, they are not my second family" replied Eda, one of the project participants. "They are my family, my one big family." What other evaluation should we really need? So yes, next year, come rain or shine, students from Hakkari will again be coming to Izmir.
____________ Turkish AFS Volunteers will continue reporting their works in Hakkari. If you wish to support us, please do contact AFS Volunteers Association of Turkey at email@example.com or follow our KArE initiative on facebook: https://www.facebook.com/kareplatformu/