This story starts somewhere in Izmir, Turkey with a group of dedicated AFS volunteers and takes us to Faro in Portugal. It reminds us of what the AFS mission is all about.
Cultural differences within a country can sometimes be even bigger than those across continents. At AFS, we are very good at creating bridges between different nations. However, we rarely focus on the diversity within nations. This has recently changed in Turkey: in 2015, AFS Gönüllüleri Derneği (the AFS Turkey Volunteer Association) started to offer inter-Turkey exchanges between Hakkari and Izmir. This project rightfully won the 2015 AFS Changemaker Award for bringing ICL and youth exchange – and most of all hope – to a region of Turkey affected by violent conflicts and few opportunities.
The success of this city-exchange encouraged the Izmir volunteers to take their Hakkari mission to the next level. They started encouraging youth in Hakkari to apply for the AFS program. After the success of the Izmir exchange, they expected around 15 young people to apply for the AFS program. Instead, they received the incredible amount of 90 applications for participating in an exchange year. In November 2015, motivated AFS volunteers went to Hakkari to organize the first AFS assessment in the region: a multiple choice test of general knowledge and motivation that AFS Turkey uses for all applicants. Given the harsh circumstances of Hakkari youth, an under-average number of 7 students passed this test.
Meanwhile in Portugal: Board Member Rita, who had been a huge fan of the Hakkari project since giving them her vote for the Changemaker Awards, reads about the student assessment on the VolunteerVoices blog. She has no doubt: Portugal should host one of these students! Rita not only gets the ball rolling on the side of AFS Portugal, but she also mentions this inspiring story to her AFSer Silvia. The latter has already hosted 5 AFS students from all over the world in her house. When she heard the story, Silvia knew right away that she wanted to host one of these students from Hakkari.
This kind of commitment to the cause can also be found in Turkey. One of the driving forces behind the Hakkari-Izmir project, Tolga, tells us: “It’s not hard to find volunteers willing to help organize the exchange for the students from Hakkari. We are all very passionate about it.” As a volunteer from Izmir, he’s one of the volunteers who traveled to Hakkari for the first assessment. In December 2015, other volunteers traveled South-East to interview the seven students that had passed the tests. 4 of them were found eligible for an AFS exchange year. At this point, there was only one step left: family interviews. “Unfortunately, we could not convince the family of the only girl who had gotten this far to let her travel. Thus only 3 students from the over 90 passed the three assessment steps”, Tolga explains.
It’s important to understand that not everyone in Hakkari is poor. However, the assessment made it clear that the three students who had gotten this far would need full scholarships to make their dream happen. “There was no doubt that they would receive full financial support. AFS Turkey covers their scholarships for the program and the Volunteer association compliments this with further support in the form of pocket money and by covering the costs for passports and visas.” Otherwise, the Hakkari youth would not be able to travel abroad. Tolga’s eyes shine when he tells us how exciting it is that all three students will really get a chance to travel abroad: one is going to the Dominican Republic, one to Italy and the other one… you guessed it...to Portugal.
When talking to the AFS Portugal office in early 2016, Silvia told them: “When you receive the files from the student from Hakkari, send them to me!”. She had meanwhile started researching about this region of the world she had not heard about before. Her research made her even more convinced: “Giving an opportunity of a different life for a year to a young person with limited opportunities is one of the biggest reasons why I started hosting”, she tells us. In early May, Silvia finally opens the letter with one students’ – let’s call him Ali* – application. “With every word I read about him, I was more convinced that I wanted to host him. He fits here perfectly.” The very next day, Silvia called the office and confirmed her hosting.
Silvia is a very engaged volunteer. Besides having taken on a lot of responsibility as coordinator of her local AFS chapter, she also volunteers for two food banks distributing food to people in need. We meet her when she reaches out to the VolunteerVoices in early May. Excited to share her happiness about hosting Ali*, Silvia asks us who she could contact in Turkey. The VolunteerVoices put her in contact with Tolga and they both simply exchange gratefulness to each other for making this happen.
Tolga later tells us that the the Volunteer Association in Turkey cares first and foremost about the AFS mission and believes that programs should serve it rather than stand in its way. And with their work in Hakkari, they are doubtlessly showing us all how the AFS mission can guide our work. Because the impact doesn’t stop at the 3 students that will travel abroad or the 10 students that were hosted in Izmir: we’re also impacting their families and their school. “I was deeply moved when the teachers of the local school told us that, unlikely all the other schools, theirs was the only one where no students had left in the last year to join the guerilla in the mountains.” The teachers believe that the AFS volunteers played an important role in this. Why? Because the AFS volunteers are bringing hope to Hakkari. And as Tolga puts it: “Over there, hope is a big issue!”
What’s next? The Volunteer Association will not stop here! They are already implementing the second edition of the Hakkari-Izmir exchange at the end of May. When we asked Tolga if they are also planning to reach other communities like Hakkari, he told us wisely: “It doesn’t make sense to move somewhere else now. We want to turn the connection between Izmir and Hakkari into a long-lasting relationship. But we would love to match our other big chapters with cities likes Hakkari.”
For Ali* and his two friends, the journey starts in July when they will travel to Istanbul for their orientation. And in September, Silvia will finally open the doors to her home to Ali*. “I’m sure he will like it here. Faro has 300 days of sunshine per year.”
*Name changed by author
Rahel Aschwanden has been a volunteer for AFS for over 10 years. She is currently based in Brazil and dedicates her volunteering to the VolunteerVoices as well as the AFS Sustainability Heroes.