Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Kurban Bayram

Have you ever gotten up one morning and instead of going to school met up with your mother’s extended family to sacrifice a cow? Well, if you haven’t I’d recommend visiting a predominantly Muslim country during Kurban Bayram (literally, the holiday of sacrifice; also known as Eid al-Adha) to observe the many cows and sheep being sacrificed in fields, parks, and yards. It will definitely make you think about the reality and morality of eating meat to a greater extent, but Bayram is about much more than that. During this holiday you get the chance to familiarize yourself with the culture and traditions of the country to a much greater extent by experiencing them put into practice at every moment.
The four day holiday is first and foremost dedicated to the sacrifice of a sheep or cow to represent the sacrifice of his son that Abraham was willing to make to demonstrate his obedience to God; however, the sacrificed animal serves many other purposes as well. The entire animal is taken apart, cleaned, and then divided up- each of the nuclear families within my mother’s extended family was given an equal amount of the meat, and of that meat the majority is given to less fortunate families who cannot afford to get an animal of their own, In this way the sacrifice holds a religious significance but also serves a greater social purpose.
After the sacrifice has been made, everyone then focuses on the other aspects of the holiday; as soon as our cow had been completely cleaned and divided among our family and everyone had gone home, we went to visit my father’s family in Adana. His whole family had come together for Bayram so that we were staying in my grandparents’ house with my aunt Yasemin, her German exchange daughter, my aunt Elif from Ankara and her husband Vedat. As soon as we arrived, as well as previously that day with my mother’s family and from time to time later on in the holiday, I got to witness one of the main traditions of this aspect of Bayram. Both of my parents and my younger brothers kissed one hand of each of my grandparents and then touched it to their foreheads as a sign of respect for elders, and whenever we would have guests over or visit someone else’s house, which was fairly often that week, I would see the same tradition every time.
This constant state of hosting guests and being hosted is another very tiring but very interesting and important tradition of Bayram. Some days we would stay at home, greeting guests, making light conversation, drinking tea or Turkish coffee, and then saying goodbye only to welcome a new group of guests shortly afterward. Other days we would play the role of the guest and go from house to house doing the same thing- conversing over tea or coffee with our hosts. Regardless of whether we were the guests or the hosts at any given moment, there was always the flow of people coming and going, reconnecting and celebrating this holiday with friends and family they may not have seen for two days, two months, or two years, catching up on each other’s lives, maintaining and strengthening the relationships that entirely central to Turkish culture and society.
This hectic but exciting rush that was Kurban Bayram was an opportunity for me to become closer to my family, meet so many new people, practice my Turkish, and see firsthand the pre-supermarket stage of preparing meat to be eaten. But much more that it provided a magnified glimpse into one major Turkish holiday and Turkish culture as a whole. The traditions of Kurban Bayram are essentially the embodiment of so many values that are central to Turkish and Islamic culture, but also most other cultures in the world; the values of charity, the importance of family and friends, and respect for elders are highlighted in every aspect of the holiday and allow you to relate to and appreciate the holiday even if you had never experienced it before.

Me with my cousins and uncle

My mom, grandparents, and uncle with the cow

Me and my brother drinking banana milkshakes in Adana

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Türkiye'ye Hoşgeldiniz!

I can't believe we've already been here for over a month! After an overnight orientation in New York, we arrived in Turkey on September 7th. We then had an orientation in Istanbul, followed by a short visit to Ankara, and now we're in our host cities!


This is the orientation held for all AFS students immediately prior to departure. Not all the orienations are at the same time (some year programs leave in July, some leave in September) so the only other YES Abroad students at this orientation were the five going to Ghana. It was great getting to see them one more time before we left, especially since the rest of the orientation wasn't the most exciting. At the gateway you basically have a few hours of sessions about culture shock, safety, etc. and then the next day you get on your flight to your host country. The best part of the orientation was the cultural resource session. Each country group got together with a returnee from that country to ask questions and talk about daily life, cultural differences, and any other questions or concerns we might have. Our "cultural resource" was Amber, a YES Abroad returnee from the first year of the program ('09-'10). It was really helpful to be able to ask any questions that we had last minute, especially so we could still remember them once we got to Turkey. (It was a good way to reinforce anything we might have forgotten from the PDO in June) The only downside to any cultural resource like this, however, is that it can only be so accurate. Amber's experience was from her year with two different families in the western coastal city of Çanakkale, which we have found to be slightly different from Kayseri and our families. Most differences are small and haven't actually affected our overall experience, but it just proves that you should try not to have too many expectations (good or bad) when you go on an exchange.

Sarah and Emily (Ghana), me, Lydia (Ghana), and Hana
Sarah and Emily (Ghana), me, Lydia (Ghana), and Hana

Miranda was super excited to check in for our flight at JFK.

Once we got to Istanbul we had another week of orientation. This time it was much more laid back and fun, and it was a good way to adjust to being in Turkey before going to our cities. Upon arrival at the airport, we had to say goodbye to Ian, Alec, and Jonathan (the other AFSers from the US going to Turkey) and we were taken in a minibus to our hotel.
Ruby and Linnie at baggage claim in Istanbul
The first night there, the hotel AFS normally uses was full, so we stayed in one a few minutes away and moved to the other hotel the next morning. The second hotel was really interesting- the architecture was a strange mix of a retro main building with some traditional Turkish accents, modern American-looking additions, and log cabin guest houses, and the grounds were expansive enough that they also functioned as a farm. There were at least five llamas, two or three peacocks, twenty peahens, one rooster, two ponies, and about fifty rabbits running around outside.
My balcony was the choice nighttime roosting spot for the peackocks.

During the week we spent here, we did all sorts of different activities. There was the intensive language course that we had for six hours a day, taught by the head of the Turkish department at TÖMER, the best language school in the country.

Olivia and Ruby doing a dialogue exercise in class.
Then there were the occasional AFS sessions, where we would talk about Turkish culture, daily life, safety and program rules, and whatever else we needed to discuss. And when we weren't in class or a group meeting, at a meal, or sleeping, we could hang out around the hotel (in our rooms, in the pool, on huge beanbag cushions in the garden) follow the animals around trying to feed the ponies and llamas pears that had fallen off on of the trees, study Turkish, or whatever else we felt like doing (within reason, of course).

Playing pool (I discovered a hidden talent of mine).
Playing on the swings.
Group photo! (Top row l-r: Hana, Deniz, Samet, Miranda,
Ruby, Bridget; Middle: Linne, Olivia; Bottom: me)


On our final day in İstanbul, we had to get up at around 4:30 to catch a bus to Ankara. Once we arrived in Ankara we had a little down time at the hotel, got our cellphones, and then went to the US Embassy for a short visit. There we met Duke from the security team, Deniz, and Stephanie, the deputy cultural attaché at the embassy. Our conversation with them consisted of some safety/security tips from Duke, information about the embassy's role in our program, and asking any questions we may have had for them.
After leaving the embassy we headed to Ataturk's mausoleum. Here we got to see a museum containing artifacts from Ataturk's entire life, as well as his tomb (or rather, the memorial above where he is buried; his actual tomb is in a secured room that you can only see on a video screen in the museum).

Later that evening we saw Stephanie again when she hosted us for dinner at her house. We got to try some more Turkish food, and we met our Foreign Service mentors for this year. Each one of us has been matched with a Foreign Service officer who is there to answer any questions we might have about the Foreign Service and what it's like living and working in Turkey, and for have as a minor support thought the year (in addition to AFS staff, volunteers, and other US Embassy officials). It was great that this had been arranged for us as it's not a part of the YES Abroad program, and I had been considering joining the Foreign Service at some point. I got to talk with my mentor about preparation before joining (e.g. the exam and the school of foreign service at Georgetown) and what it's like once you are accepted (training and postings).
The next day we visited the Turkish parliament and got to see the general assembly chamber. After this we said goodbye to the Antep group as they left for the airport, and the three of us went with a couple AFS volunteers to two museums and Ankara castle since our flight was later in the evening.
Turkish parliament
Ankara castle

We arrived in the Kayseri airport after our short flight and took a taxi straight to the hotel where we would meet our families for the first time. When they all arrived, we had dinner at the hotel's restaurant. After dinner, Hana, Miranda, and I hugged for what we thought would be the last time for a while (turns out our families are friends and get together fairly regularly) and said goodbye as we all headed to our new homes.
Getting on the flight to Kayseri!
Meeting our families for the first time!

The first week was incredible, fantastic, amazing, wonderful (...you get the picture) and so much fun, and since then my time here has only gotten better. I am absolutely loving my life here- school is fairly enjoyable (yet tiring) even though it's in a language I don't fully understand yet, I love my family, my friends are great, I'm learning so much about everything, and my Turkish is improving every day.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Pre-Departure Orientation

It's been over a month since the PDO, but I thought I should still post something about it. Side note: If you can help it, try to avoid any international travel before going on an exchange. I left for a summer camp/vacation the same day that the PDO ended - it was a little stressful packing for over a month and trying to get ready for the PDO, not to mention the possibility of not getting back in time to apply for my visa! (Luckily the visa instructions from AFS arrived on the last day of my trip, so I got all the documents in by the deadline) I wouldn't have missed my trip for anything - it was amazing and so worth it - but I'm just lucky the timing worked out perfectly. (I could have ended up going to one of the countries that left right after the PDO and having to cancel my whole trip!) Anyway, back to the PDO...

The PDO was a lot of fun and a lot of sitting in a window-less room listening to people talk about culture shock, homesickness, and preparing for a year abroad. The best part was the third day, when we got to leave the hotel for a few hours and visit the State Department, our host country's embassy, and the Lincoln Memorial. At the embassy we were supposed to have lunch with the YES students from our host country and meet some of the embassy officials. Unfortunately, our appointment at the Turkish embassy couldn't be scheduled earlier than 1:15, and we had to be back at the State Department by 1:45 or they wouldn't let us inside, so we had to cut our visit a little short. We took a bus over to the embassy with the Turkish YES students, got to take some pictures, sat down and talked to some of the students for a few minutes, and then had to leave again. Then once we'd arrived back at the State Department we passed through security and were escorted into a large conference room. Here we got to meet Kevin Baker for the second time (a State Dept. employee in the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs who was also at the IPSE), as well as regional experts (State Dept. employees who specialized in the regions that contain all of the YES Abroad countries) and Tara Sonenshine, the Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, who answered all of our questions in a panel discussion.

After we were done with all of the official visits, we walked over to the Lincoln Memorial and had a little free time to see the National Mall.


P.S. I also got my host family while I was away - I'll post about it soon!

Friday, May 11, 2012

Timeline for the Next Few Months

I can't believe it's only been four weeks since finalists were notified... but since then I've found out a little bit more about what's coming in the next few months.

May and June: Two mandatory AFS conference calls (since I'm going to Turkey, my program is through AFS. Not all of the countries go with the same implementing organizations)

June 26-29: National Pre-Departure Orientation in DC. I'll get to see everyone again for the first time since Denver, and probably the last time before we all leave (except for people going with me to Turkey, and Ghana and Indonesia since I'll see them at the gateway orientation in New York right before we leave)

Sept. 5: AFS Gateway Orientation in NYC the day/night before leaving for Turkey

Sept. 6: We fly to Turkey!  There are six other girls going to Turkey this year - Olivia, Miranda, Linnie, Ruby, Bridget, and Hana. (Usually five go to each country, but since Egypt and Mali were cancelled this year those spots went to some of the other countries)

Hopefully I'll get more information soon, like who my host family is! (I'm not getting my hopes up though - I could be waiting until August for that...)


Friday, April 13, 2012

YES Abroad Scholarship!

Today I found out that I've been selected as a finalist for the YES Abroad program. Along with six other US high school students, I will be spending a full school year abroad in Turkey! We will attend a Turkish high school and stay with host families during our exchange.
To get to this point, all the applicants have done a lot of work and had to endure seemingly endless periods of waiting. After submitting applications by January 11, we had to wait until February 29 to know if we were semi-finalists! Then we had to wait another month for the In-Person Selection Event (IPSE) in late March. 90 semi-finalists were flown out to Denver for a weekend of group evaluations, country tables, and individual interviews. And, of course, after the event we had to wait another three weeks until finalist notifications. For most of us, the wait paid off! YES Abroad is sending 55 high school students from the US to nine countries with significant Muslim populations (eleven before Egypt and Mali were cancelled) to live and study for a whole school year.
Now the next period of waiting - 2 months until the Pre-Departure Orientation (PDO) in DC, then about another 2 months until I leave for Turkey!

See you in DC!