Talking Turkey

by Maddy Wegner, Director of Engagement

Who knew that the recent immigrant community of Twin City Somalis could be a bridge to present-day Turkey?

Consider the new Campus Café Turkish Grill on Riverside Avenue, situated in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood of Minneapolis, between Augsburg College and the University of Minnesota. This joint venture is a Somali/Turkish hot spot. Sporting both flags, it is a partnership much like the possibilities that undergirded a recent trip of Twin Cities delegates to Turkey — half of whom were Somali-Americans, plus one NYLC representative, and Faruk Cingilli — the Turkish co-founder of the restaurant and a member of the World Turkish Business Council.

Thanks to these countries’ ancient alliance dating back to the Ottoman Empire and shared religious heritage, coupled with the significant Twin Cities population of Somali-Americans (about 75,000), the trade and education delegation traveled to the capitol city of Ankara to conceive of new partnerships.

As former NYLC staff member Michael VanKeulen, who led the delegation, says: “I wanted to showcase the best ideas and resources from our state.” Now the Executive Director of Open Path Resources, VanKeulen remains committed to the values and potential of service-learning. “NYLC and their leadership in the field of service-learning is something we should proudly export to the world.”

TIKA (a Turkish parallel to USAID), funded the delegation and supported the group’s access to a range of ambassadors and members of parliament, in addition to the President’s new palace. Fueled by endless cups of tea and Turkish coffee, the team met leaders across sectors that included education, religion, foreign relations, social and cultural affairs, and business.

Conversations were lively, in part because Turkey is the second fastest growing economy in the world (behind China), and gives more humanitarian aid worldwide, per capita, than any other country – at $3.2 billion. Central to every conversation was the devotion of the Turks to the Somalis, and the Somali-Americans’ desire to thank the people of Turkey for a history of support. But the focus remained on the prospects for new joint ventures in trade, education, and culture.

So, what can be learned from this country that is bordered by eight different nations whose first languages are not Turkish?

For starters…

  • Language can be a tool of peace, according to representatives from Yunus Emre Institute, a social and cultural institute named for Turkey’s first poet.
  • The 3.5 million Syrian refugees living Turkey are considered “guests” rather than refugees. More than a million new students have entered the Turkish schools and are taught in both Arabic (Syria’s native language) and Turkish.
  • Turks are aware of the Minnesota companies in their midst: 3M, Best Buy, Medtronic, and Target, though the Minnesotan delegation knew less of such education tech giants as Udemy, which was founded in Turkey.
  • Social justice tenets are central to Islamic beliefs, so that social entrepreneurialism is more the rule than the exception in business ventures.
  • As one parliamentary leader said, “Helping our Somali brothers and sisters is a sacred opportunity for us, not a burden.”

Clearly, this country which has been a strategic crossroads for more than 16 civilizations knows how to build partnerships.

As one Turk said, “A person is not as big with his body as he is with his soul or ideas.” It is NYLC’s goal to help bring some of those sizable ideas to life by supporting these new ventures that range from cultural exchanges to charter schools.