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Dr Acehan works on Turkish-American History Initiative

Turk of America interviewed Dr. Acehan,a visiting Professor at George Mason University  regarding unknown Ottoman and Turkish traces in the United States.

Why it is important to generate awareness of history between Turkey and U.S.?

Despite the long history of contact between the United States and Turkey, there is currently no operating program or initiative that promotes the history of Turkish-American relations and Turkish immigration from the Ottoman Empire/Turkey to the United States. Many other ethnic communities – such as the Italians, Irish, Chinese, Greeks, Poles, Armenians, Lebanese, and Jews – have successfully created academic centers and/or nonprofit cultural institutions that stress the bonds between their ancestral homelands and the United States, and promote the history of their contributions as immigrants. These stories help their communities balance pride in their homelands with their full participation as immigrants. The popularity of these stories strengthens bonds between the United States and the modern countries that their ancestors came from.

Can you explain further of your initiative objectives and details of the program?

We seek to establish a new program – independently or through an existing Turkish-American nonprofit organization – that will support research and serve Turkish-American communities. Through a website, online video, museum exhibitions, a newsletter, and quarterly events in Washington, D.C., it will seek to educate larger audiences about Turkish-American relations and Turkish-American immigration, both new and old. Many people do not realize that Turks started to come to the United States over a century ago, and new immigrants do not connect their stories to those of older immigrants. Even if a full center cannot be established yet, a nonprofit program would fill an enormous gap for Turkey and for Turkish-Americans.

From the Ottoman times to the Turkish Republic, Turkey and the U.S. maintained good relations in terms of trade and defense. These good relations became visible after the signing of the treaty of navigation and commerce in 1830 and that year, military, economic and political collaboration between the two states began flourishing. There are also many important stories of Turkish-American collaboration, cooperation, and contact during the 20th and 21st centuries.

This program will fill the gap created by the closing of the Institute of Turkish Studies at Georgetown University and the Turkish Cultural Foundation in Washington, D.C. Other Turkish nonprofits in the United States, because of the contemporary situation, have also shifted their activities toward political work, leaving very little organized and sophisticated cultural programming. Having Dr. Isil Acehan work on this initiative at an existing Turkish nonprofit would recover the function of those programs in a way that is not overly limited by COVID-19 and that does not require complete reinvention.

What kind of activities would help to make the program successful?

At its founding, this program will seek to develop a strong online educational presence and to pursue special opportunities and grants that will help the initiative grow and support its parent organization.

The program will have a website that will explain different aspects of Turkish-American history. Through photographs, short essays, and statistics, it will explain the history of Turkish immigration to the United States. It will help visitors understand the different places in the United States that Turks immigrated to, including New York City and New Jersey, industrial Massachusetts, and Detroit. It will explain the timeframe, demographics, and unique features of Turkish immigration to the United States.

Website

The website will also contain information about major events in the history of Turkish-American relations, including the Korean War and cultural exchange programs. It will also connect the history of relations of the Ottoman Empire and the United States to Turkish-American relations after 1923.

Online video

Many of the most interesting Turkish-American stories should be told visually. As part of a new television program produced by Bahçeşehir University, called “Ottoman America,” Dr. Isil Acehan has gained experience in producing media about Turkish-American immigration. She has also established relations with people across the country who desire to tell Turkish-American stories and who often have special artifacts and knowledge. 

These stories can be told effectively in short five to ten-minute Youtube videos with an attractive branding. Effective videos will memorialize the stories from individuals who may not be alive much longer. They will also expand the audience for Turkish-American history beyond historians and scholars to regular people all over the world. These videos will also help raise the online profile of the parent organization.

Exhibitions

The program will work to develop an exhibition about Turkish immigration to the United States. Ideally, it would be opened at a major American institution like Ellis Island or the Smithsonian. However, eventually, if it were designed for portability, it could travel the country and be shown at local Turkish clubs and universities. This model was successfully pursued by the Arab American National Museum for an exhibition about the “Little Syria” neighborhood of New York City. This would be an excellent way for the sponsoring organization to build connections with its local constituents.

The program could also seek to cooperate with the U.S. State Department on funding a form of the exhibition that could travel in Turkey as well.

Newsletter

The program will maintain a newsletter that will update supporters on its activities and report about new academic and journalistic work about Turkish-American history. With support, Turkish immigrants, in places like Paterson, New Jersey, could write short articles about the histories of their local communities. Scholars who study Turkish-American history would report their accomplishments, such as published articles, dissertations, and new books. The newsletter will also include interviews with more recent immigrants to the United States from Turkey, connecting recent history to the past.

What would be your budget? How would new establishment would survive?

Although probably not functional at the start, the program would seek to establish a small grant program in the long-term. Through offering small grants and facilitating contact with Turkish universities and government institutions, the program would support the work of students and scholars in the United States and Turkey who study topics related to Turkish-American history. This does not have to focused only on academics. It could also support high school students and undergraduate students.

Who is Dr. Isil Acehan?

Dr. Isil Acehan is an historian and a researcher from Turkey. She holds an M.A and a Ph.D. degree in History from Bilkent University, Turkey. Her focuses are majorly on Ottoman immigration to the US and US-Turkey relations. Acehan received multiple scholarships and research grants to conduct her doctoral and post-doctoral research. Isil was a Fulbright visiting fellow at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard University in the academic year 2006-2007. Later in the 2017-2018 period, she was a Post-Doctoral Fellow at the John XXIII Foundation for Religious Studies in Bologna, Italy. Currently, Acehan is a visiting professor at George Mason University, Ali Vural Ak Center for Global Islamic Studies. She is also a Senior Advisor at PASS Global Strategic Consultancy.

We Lost a Great Friend to the Turkish People: Brent Kennedy

There are two questions about which everybody is curious.

When was the first time Turks migrated to the US, and how many Turks are living there now?

There have been numerous stories written, especially on the whereabouts of this migration. However scarce in number, though, we have encountered Americans who claim to be of Turkic origin. The Melungeons are one such group.

Brent Kennedy, the honorary leader of the Melungeon people, who believe that they are the descendants of the Ottoman Levantines, unveiled that he had a suspicion after doctors told him that he had Familial Mediterranean Fever, which is not endemic to the Americas;  he discovered that he was of Turkic ancestry after a DNA test. 

According to several history professors, the ancestry of the Melungeon community, which claims to have a population of approximately two million people in the US, extends back to around ten thousand Levantine seamen from the Ottoman navy who were taken captive during the 1571 Battle of Lepanto. Some of these shipmen were used as galley slaves by the Spanish and the English, and then they were left to their own fate in America. In fact, it is even claimed that Abraham Lincoln and Elvis Presley may be from Melungeon lineage as well.

Melungeons who initially tried to survive by settling on the shores of Virginia withdrew toward the Appalachian Mountains near present-day Tennessee due to cultural differences with the residents of the region and have mixed in with the native tribes in that region whose language belonged to the Athabascan family.

Kennedy, the honorary leader of the Melungeons, reported that their DNA closely matched that of Anatolian Turks, wrote two books to strengthen the bonds between the two nations during his life, and developed close relations with the Turkish people living in the US. Also, Wise in Virginia, where Kennedy lived, and Cesme in Turkey, became sister towns.

It was announced that Prof. Brent Kennedy, the leader of the Melungeon community believed to be the descendant of Ottoman Levantine soldiers and the director of the UVA-Wise college in Virginia, passed away due to his pre-existing health conditions.

Turk of America published a special issue regarding Melungeons and it was recognized by Melungeon and Turkish-American Communities.

Rest in Peace!

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