By Batuhan Görgülü
(June 20, 2009) – I had much to look forward to when I was accepted as an exchange student a few years ago for the AFS Intercultural Programs, a community-based volunteer organisation dedicated to building a more just and peaceful world through international student exchange. Moving from Turkey to live in the United States with a host family for a year was an entirely new experience for me.
When I arrived in America, I met my host brother, Jeremy. After spending only a few hours together we were surprised to learn that even though we live on nearly opposite sides of the world we still enjoy watching similar television shows, engaging in many of the same activities and listening to some of the same music.
We were brought up in different cities with different cultures by different parents, but all that mattered to us was who we were as individuals and that we were not going to be strangers.
Before arriving, I informed my host family that I would be fasting for Ramadan and that this practice is one of Islam’s five pillars. In a show of camaraderie and caring, my host family told me that they would wait to have dinner until it was time for me to break my fast.
The respect that I sensed from my friends and host family in the United States encouraged me to show similar respect for them by partaking in Thanksgiving and Christmas festivities. I even attended a church service on Christmas, where I felt very welcome. We then listened to carols, ate dinner together and gave each other presents, bringing the family closer, just as Eid celebrations do.
After I returned, Jeremy and I stayed in touch and he visited me in Turkey last summer. Coincidentally, during his last two weeks here, the month of Ramadan began and I explained our practice to him in greater detail, telling him that it wouldn’t be a problem if he did not join us for iftar, the breaking of the fast at sunset.
Despite his own scepticism about organised religion, Jeremy was curious and never critical. In an attempt to learn about my religion and my faith, he decided to experience fasting for himself. He woke up with the rest of my family to eat before morning prayer and did not eat again until dusk.
Although he found the experience difficult at first, he found that when we were able to eat, it was the most amazing food he’d ever had, and that the best thing about the experience was seeing everyone interacting during dinner.
Jeremy continued to fast with us until the day he left Turkey. From the moment we met until this very day, our relationship has only gotten better. When a contentious issue comes up, we solve it by looking both ways, by putting ourselves in the other’s shoes and by holding true to values like empathy and respect, even during arguments. Our continued friendship is just one small example of how open-mindedness can lead to shared understanding.
With all the talk over recent years about Turkey acceding to the European Union, there is much debate over whether Turkey’s Muslim values are compatible with the so-called Judeo-Christian identity of the EU. Theorising about how a different culture might create instability within the EU, however, is just a product of our fear of the unknown.
As my relationship with Jeremy illustrates, people can – and do – learn to understand those who are different from them. What is done at the micro level between individuals can also be achieved at the macro level, between communities and nations.
* Batuhan Görgülü is a junior majoring in economics at Koç University and has an interest in international relations. Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), www.commongroundnews.org.