Building Bridges in the Region

Elif, Turkey, UWCD’18 received the Hrant Dink Travel Grant to come to study in Armenia at UWC Dilijan. The Travel Grant supports various activities such as partnership building and networking, cross-border and academic cooperation projects including exchange programs, aiming to contribute to joint initiatives between the two countries.

E.: I was the youngest applicant and the only student who had applied for the travel grant that year. The Foundation gives out the travel grants to people who are interested in building bridges between Armenia and Turkey, which is something I want to pursue. After graduating from my boarding school, I had to start planning my further education. Of course, my mother would prefer me to study in Europe. As for me, I would never choose Europe over Armenia, one of the main reasons being that this might be my only chance to discover Armenia. Also, given our history, this might be an opportunity for me to become a part of the change.

In my search for the best way to improve the situation between our countries, my first thought was to build a career in politics, but then it struck me that for all I know, they are not trying hard enough to solve the conflict. That’s when I realised that I want to work for an NGO. Maybe even the Hrant Dink Foundation itself, as they are the biggest, if not the only, organisation working with both countries and trying to bring changes. Strangely, it is much more common to see a German walking on the streets of Uşak (Elif’s hometown) than it is to see an Armenian, which, I think, is not right. We are neighbours, and seeing an Armenian should be much more natural.

All the students at UWC Dilijan participate in a 6-week mandatory Armenian for Beginners course so that they are able to communicate with the local staff in the college and participate in the life of the local community off-campus. After the initial course, students are free to continue their studies. Elif is one of the students who decided to continue learning the language to a more advanced level.

E.: I am learning Armenian, because people express themselves better in their mother tongue, and I am convinced that learning the language opens the door to the entire culture as well. Also, generally people back home consider it more logical to learn different languages rather than the language of their neighbour, which I do not agree with. I prefer to start discovering the world from a neighbouring country.

Usually, coming to a UWC school is quite a culture shock for students;
luckily, for me that was not the case – I came to Armenia only to realise how similar we are.

E.: I hope to take a gap year in Armenia, and knowing the language will be very helpful. During my gap year, the plan is to work on changing the common perception of our two nations. We are bordering countries, but we know nothing about each other. We have plenty in common, but everyone concentrates on claiming these common elements in the name of their own culture. For me, culture is not something that belongs to any single nation, rather it is something that is shared within a region. During my gap year, I will get a chance to live in Armenia outside the school, because, let’s face it, living in UWC is much different from being involved in the life of the community. It is easy to step up here and say how the relations between the two countries should be. Honestly, I don’t think this will be the great change: it is important to go out there and send out the message to society. This is the only way we can spread peace in a sustainable way. One of the things I would like to do during my gap year, is create a book that would collect letters from Armenians and Turks addressed to each other.

In order to get ready to spend a year in Armenia on her own, Elif is spending much of her time honing her language skills. She is also actively engaged in community work through co-curricular activities, such as Science with Kids and Kindergarten CAS. This is her way of getting involved with Armenian life and discovering more every day through the process.

E.: If I stayed in my hometown I would have never learned anything about Armenia. But here I am, learning new things and when I go back home, I tell people all the things I learned here. Everyone has questions about Armenia in my hometown; they have this picture of a country they have never seen, but which they have prejudices about. What I try to do is explain to everyone how similar we are, that, for instance, for both Turks and Armenians hospitality is very important. I feel very safe here, I like the way people treat me, because they are very open and sincere, very much like people back home.

Here in Armenia I met Anna and Armenuhi, who work at the Hrant Dink Foundation’s Yerevan office, and they said that since I don’t have any relatives here, they are going to be my new aunts. I also met a nice man who ran a grocery store in Dilijan. We got acquainted when I went shopping, he spoke some Azerbaijani, so we could understand each other and we struck up a conversation. Later he closed his store and moved to Yerevan, saying that if I needed anything, he would help me.

E.: Before coming here, I supported the rights of the national minorities back home, but at the same time my friends knew so little about Armenia and had so many questions. My mom literally cried when she heard the news that I would be moving to Armenia for two years. My father and I spent days convincing her that I was going to be fine and that this was a good opportunity. In fact, it was my father who introduced me to the work and ideas of Hrant Dink in the first place. That was the starting point when I started discovering how significant a role Hrant Dink had in creating connections between the two nations. I read his books, and I grew to appreciate his way of thinking, I really admire him. A semester later my mom is perfectly fine with me living here instead of Europe.

I think it is very important for both countries that me and other students from Turkey come to study in Armenia. People here are gradually getting used to seeing Turks in their country. The same goes for the people back home: although they are not experiencing daily life with Armenian people, in this environment, they at least get to hear my stories and those of other students. Through this, they can begin to learn more about Armenian culture.