Saturday morning, I woke up bright and early to participate in the Yale Day of Service. When I reached HGS, the designated meeting point for the event, I recognized no one. Perplexed, I sat down next to a girl who looked about my age — only to find out that she was a postdoctoral fellow at the School of Medicine. The event organizer’s opening remarks a few minutes later made it clear that I, the ignorant transfer student, had mistakenly signed up for the Day of Service of the Graduate School. I decided to go along for the ride anyways.
The ride, it turned out, was 20 minutes by bus to West Haven with two students from the School of Management, one other undergrad and an assistant dean.
As we passed a dreary array of secondhand shops, graveyards, and gas stations, the dean informed us that West Haven had been a food desert until the recent opening of the Stop & Shop. We considered this for a dreary moment, before the dean’s tone abruptly changed. “These ethnic restaurants are fantastic!” she exclaimed, pointing through the mucky bus window at shoebox storefronts with Arabian fonts advertising Turkish and generic Middle Eastern foodstuffs to be found inside. “I bring my son here.”
A minute later, we disembarked from the bus. Outside a small white plaster building across the street, a young woman in a purple headscarf waved to us. We had arrived at the West Haven Turkish Cultural Center.
Soon after the woman in charge, a Yale graduate student from Turkey, warmly welcomed us into the Center, I began to wonder who was serving whom. The entire task that they asked of us was to paint a small schoolroom. Upon entering the room, we found all the furniture moved for us into the Center, desks and chairs stacked up and plastic already laid down to protect the carpet. Our hosts even provided gloves to protect our delicate hands from the scourge of white paint.
As my fellow volunteers and I released our scholastic frustrations with white-dipped paint rollers, occasionally breaking out singing Taylor Swift’s “Mean,” the girl with the purple headscarf and a young man who frequents the Center hovered nervously, insisting on helping with any halfway-strenuous chore.
We asked the young man, a recent immigrant, about his plans for the future. Obviously pleased by our question, he drew himself up to his full height and responded that he was currently in community college and would then transfer to university to study computer science. His proud and hopeful demeanor sent a shiver of shame down my spine for having ever complained about my coursework.
Before we could finish touching up the paint job around the corners and wall sockets of the room, our Yale host urged us to join her for tea. We asked to stay for a few minutes longer so we could complete the job, but she insisted that they could touch it up — we were their guests! The tea was served in the director’s office in ornately decorated glasses, and, to our surprise, it was accompanied by enough pastry, cookies and bread to feed twice our number.
As the morning drew to a close, our host gathered us around for pictures and invited us to join them for a cultural evening on Oct. 26. She mentioned that they had recently made a gift to a fund for families who were victims of the 9/11 attacks. She explained that the Center enjoyed having guests of all backgrounds and faiths present at their events to experience a bit of their beloved Turkish culture. I was beginning to love it, too.
Although I spent a scant two hours at the Center, I came away with a greatly enhanced appreciation and respect for the people and culture of Turkey. I plan to attend the evening event on Oct. 26, and I urge all of you to consider making the trip out to West Haven to experience the thriving Turkish culture hidden there.
Yes, we all have midterms and hectic lives, but it would truly be a shame if any contemporary Yale student did not graduate with some exposure to Muslim and Middle Eastern culture, outside of an academic context. The little children bouncing up the stairs of the center toward their first day of Turkish culture classes gave no thought to whether their classmates also wore headdresses or went without. We know, too, that faith and culture do not dissolve the commonalities of human nature, but we need to do better than that. We need to experience it.
Nell Meosky is a sophomore in Morse College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.