General Manager of Sabancı Holding’s New York firm Exsa Inc., Hüseyin Ünver, Acar Law Firm PLLC founder, Attorney Çiğdem Acar, and the owner of Dynasty Gold and Silver company, Mehmet Uca, came together to form the Bridges of Hope Project and are now calling on volunteers to donate books and computers to the cause. Hüseyin Ünver states, “For many years I volunteered at different non-profit organizations. I have never been as fulfilled as I am here. Attorney Çiğdem Acar says, “Helping these kids who want nothing more than books, is, for me, a duty.” Mehmet Uca tells us how the first letter he wrote while in elementary school in Mardin, a city in southeastern Turkey, 50 years ago was related to today's effort: He asked for a book from a relative. “We're not only providing books but also hope”, he states. The three volunteers answered our questions below:
What's it like taking time off from your busy schedules to help children in Turkey?
It allows us to feel as though we have not been cut off from them and from Turkey. There couldn't be anything nicer than this. Our country and our people are part of a very rich cultural heritage. Education can, in a way, play the role of a bridge between that cultural heritage and contemporary civilization. Being able to help out in any way we can and being able to connect people who want to help is a pleasure, a goal, a loan repaid, a duty.
What has emotionally affected you the most in this experience?
Last year a close friend of ours in Long Island named Tanel Demiray unexpectedly passed away and left his English wife and two grown children behind. On the strength of his infectious love for Turkey, the family asked people to donate money to the Bridges of Hope Project instead of sending flowers and other presents. The family suitably memorialized Tanel by donating 5,400 dollars that they raised from the funeral. Thanks to Tanel, we were able to open three libraries and one toy room. In one of the libraries, photos of Tanel's youth and with his wife and children were framed and hung up. And the school sent a thank-you note, as if Tanel had never passed away...
In this way Tanel became immortal. After his death, his presence will be etched into the memories of the children in the boarding school. For people like us, living away from our homeland, what could be more meaningful or moving?
How many books have you provided to students so far?
Until now we have collected money for 27 small libraries. Twenty-one libraries are now open and six are almost ready and will be opened very soon. There are libraries in Muş, Samsun, Denizli, Diyarbakır, Adıyaman, Kırşehir, Çorum, Sinop, Ağrı, Erzurum, Tokat, Mersin, Amasya, Bingöl, Kastamonu, and Çankırı. All the libraries are at YIBO's, or the state's Regional Boarding Schools, which provide the eight years of mandatory primary school education.
The ministry has opened schools in these areas, has assigned teachers to schools, and is now encouraging people to donate books. If we assume that there are an average of 400 children in every school, then we estimate that we have provided nearly 10,800 students with books. All the libraries contain about 600 books. The combined amount of books numbers about 16,000.
There are organizations like this in different cities in the US. Are you thinking about creating a type of synergy between you and them?
We think it's healthy that assistance in Turkey is multi-faceted and diverse in terms of the organizations involved. The US is very large but Turkey's needs are also great. At this early stage, we wish to institutionalize our organization first and then consider working together with American organizations and people to form a close partnership in the future. Since our primary goal is to deliver the collected money to those who need it, our organization is very precise and functions without a staff. All the work that is done here is totally voluntary.
Likewise, we see a local role that Turkish foundations can play in the US. In the New York area, Turks and American friends of Turks are a small slice of the population. The relations developed within the framework of foundations are really special and unique. For this reason, Turkish-American foundations active in various regions of the US actually bring attention to their own homeland, thereby strengthening our society as a whole.
We live our lives in the US, often unaware of all that we have. How does seeing the living conditions of the children that you help allow you to assess differences or similarities betwee the two countries?
The difference between the countries is especially felt in the YIBO's built in the rural areas far from cities. However, many of us came from such regions to where we are today. We can really close the gap with good, solid education. The issue is not just educating youth but also the parents. It takes time to legitimize the idea of sending daughters to school.
The first educational mobilization effort took place more than fifty years ago in Turkey. Because we were unable to properly educate the males of the first generation, we are still having trouble getting girls to school. There are huge regional differences in the US also. There are real differences between the perspectives, expectations of the future, and access to education of North Dakota and New York, for example. For Turkey, the attempt to improve education in rural regions needs to be supported and strengthened. We think that education and time will take care of everything.
This is the Internet age. Do you have any plans involving the kids in this regard?
In addition to the libraries, one of the organizations we work with, Primary School Aid Foundation (ILKYAR), offered to provide all the YIBO's with a large server in order to unite them with the internet. In order to buy this service, we transferred 5,500 dollars. Students will therefore be able to publish their school newspapers on their website and be able to communicate with other students and teachers of YIBO schools.
After solving the problem of lack of books, we are thinking of starting a “computer for every classroom” campaign. We are also considering a future program for the ongoing professional training of YIBO's teachers. (December 2007, Issue 27th)
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