By: Representative Kathy Ryg
My trip to Turkey with fellow legislators was most definitely a life changing experience. The opportunity to learn more about Turkey and build relationships with its business, cultural, faith and government communities was of course immediately attractive. My expectations were clear in my mind – I would have a cultural exchange that would enhance my work as a legislator both in Springfield and in my district. What I did not realize but came to appreciate beyond words was the amazing experience of being immersed in a country and culture foreign to me but completely welcoming and comfortable thanks to our generous and gracious hosts.
Our sponsors could not have done more to prepare us by sharing the complexities of this critical country on the border of Europe and Asia. They accurately described the tension between secularism and religious ideologies in Turkish governance. While offering historical context for modern day challenges in Turkey, we were welcome to ask any questions of our guides, Hilmi and Suleyman. Their open invitation to question and engage in dialogue was matched by our business, government and community hosts. The response to any question was offered enthusiastically – everyone wanted us to know and understand Turkey!
My initial expectations were immediately surpassed. We toured the historic cultural ruins of Ephesus and the religious landmarks of Hagia Sophia (once an Eastern Orthodox Cathedral, Roman Catholic church and a mosque), the Blue Mosque and the cities of Istanbul and Ankara. These tours were complemented by dinners with business leaders, meetings with media and journalists, a tour of Fatih University and lunch with government officials and staff in the Turkish parliament.
These conversations and dialogues were the exceptional opportunities offered by the Niagara Foundation to really get to know the people of Turkey and for them to know us. We exchanged stories about our family lives, we shared their worries for the world our children will grow up in, we dreamed together about how technology will create new avenues for communication, shrinking the distance between us. All of this was enhanced by the fun we had enjoying Turkish entertainment, food and an unbelievable day in the Aegean Sea.
This trip helped me cross bridges in my own life as a State Representative. I really did not know many of our traveling companions. Some were from different areas of the state, many from the other side of the aisle. Our Turkey experience quickly diminished our differences and offered unprecedented opportunity to share common interests as leaders in our state and home communities. Our own life experiences were shared as we engaged in dialogue with our Turkish counterparts – businessmen, local government officials, educators, attorneys. We learned from each other and grew to appreciate each other as persons, not politicos, and found our common ground with new friends in Turkey.
The importance of knowing and appreciating Turkey’s role in the world was particularly enhanced by a meeting with State Department personnel who described how critical the US relationship with Turkey is to the security of the Middle East and the world. Deep seated and historic religious differences are not well understood nor respected in our country but are a matter of great concern for the Turks and should be for us all. Niagara Foundation is dedicated to increasing that understanding and appreciation for the need to peacefully co-exist.
Did I say this was a life changing experience? I now hear world news with a very different and more informed perspective. I welcome leaving my comfort zone to engage with persons who have a deep rooted faith different but at the same time with so many similarities to mine. And I am happy to say my life has been enriched thanks to the Niagara Foundation and the people of Turkey.