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Making a home away from home: The Turkish American Societies

  • Cameron Swallow visited the Turkish American Societies of Chicago and Milwaukee with Carthage fac...
    Cameron Swallow visited the Turkish American Societies of Chicago and Milwaukee with Carthage faculty member Fatih Harpci. She is pictured with Ikbal.
December 14, 2018

Editor’s Note: Shortly after Cameron Swallow joined her husband, President John Swallow, at Carthage in August 2017, she decided to get to know her new home. She kicked off a “Welcome Home Tour” and invited Carthage students, faculty, staff, and alumni to be her tour guides. She started a blog and traveled with Carthaginians to different spots in Kenosha, Racine, and beyond.

Now in year two of her husband’s presidency, Cameron is continuing the Welcome Home Tour in order to get to know Carthage — and its people and connections — even better.

• • •

When John and I moved into Trinity House — the on-campus home where Carthage presidents have lived since the 1960s — one of our goals was to welcome as many Carthage faculty, staff, and students into our home as possible.

With that in mind, we kicked off a Trinity House dinner series for faculty and staff this fall. To date, we have enjoyed the company of faculty, staff, and their guests at dinners focused on specific topics like travel, music, gap years, and leadership. It has been a wonderful way to get to know more people in the Carthage community, and we look forward to continuing the series this spring.

Professor Fatih HarpciProfessor Fatih HarpciReligion professor Fatih Harpci recently attended a Trinity House dinner focused on travel and international experiences. He and his wife, Selma, brought a different perspective from the usual one of the American citizen traveling the world. Their international experience is going on in the present — every day that they live in this country. Fatih and Selma are from Turkey and have lived in Kenosha for four years, after meeting in Pennsylvania where both were pursuing degrees.

After the dinner, Fatih decided to participate in my Welcome Home Tour and introduce me to the Muslim community in the area. He and I drove to the Turkish American Societies of Chicago and Wisconsin, located in Mount Prospect, Illinois, talking about Islam, Christianity, and the experience of Muslims in the United States.

On our way out of town, we passed the Kenosha mosque, founded by Albanians a generation ago and attended by Muslims from all over the world, but still governed by the original group of founders. The religion may be universal, but the local governance of the congregation is very ethnic.

Cameron and IkbalCameron and Ikbal

At the TASC building, I met Ikbal, a bubbly young woman who welcomed me warmly and gave me a personal tour of all the exhibits at the center, which included artifacts from many different regions of Turkey as well as from several Central Asian countries. She works as a speech therapist in addition to managing a home for her husband and five children.

My museum pace is extremely slow and deliberate, and my hosts were too polite to rush me until we were in danger of missing our lunch appointment. I finished admiring the elaborate calligraphy decorating the worship space, shook hands with the imam, and followed the group to the Istanbul Market and Café in a nearby shopping center. I sat with Fatih and Ikbal; Bulent, the director of the Turkish American Society of Wisconsin and a Ph.D. student; and Ferhad, an assistant professor of religion at the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago. We were welcomed and served by the owner, Burak, who also holds a Ph.D. from a Turkish university.

It was an extraordinarily well-educated group, and I asked whether that was unusual. The answer was that, while Turks of all education levels have immigrated to the USA, a larger percentage of them are university-educated than of those who immigrate to Germany or other European countries. The influx of highly educated immigrants has increased sharply since the coup attempt in 2016.

Pictured: Fatih Harpci, Kamal Cayman, John and Cameron Swallow, Julia Cayman, Akif, and Selma Har...Pictured: Fatih Harpci, Kamal Cayman, John and Cameron Swallow, Julia Cayman, Akif, and Selma Harpci

I ordered lamb stew, which was excellent. The others shared generously from their platter of grilled meats, goat cheese, and yogurt, so I tasted many unfamiliar and delicious new dishes. Ikbal also took me on a tour of the market side of the business — all the canned goods with labels in Turkish, the halal meats, the fresh yogurt, even special dishes and glassware that people buy to remind themselves of home.

Burak, the owner, pressed a box of baklava into my hands as a special remembrance of my visit, a generous gesture not necessary in my culture but necessary in his. I felt not only welcomed but honored as a guest.

Two weeks later, John and I were the guests of the Turkish American Society of Wisconsin, a small but well-appointed building in Milwaukee that hosts gatherings, classes, and festival meals. They were serving a brunch for the community, and several members had brought non-Turkish guests to share the feast and to hear Selma Harpci’s presentation about Turkish crafts such as weaving, rug-hooking, enameling, and ‘ebru’ or marbling paper.

We enjoyed conversation with the president, Kamal Cayman, and his wife, Julia, while enjoying the home-cooked meal, noting similarities and differences with breakfast menus from our sabbatical time in Haifa, Israel, and our 2014 visit to Istanbul. Again, it was a well-educated crowd, and their children were multi-lingual and impressive.

Cameron Swallow visited the Turkish American Societies of Chicago and Milwaukee with Carthage f...

We smiled at toddler Akif as he ran from table to table, knowing so many people there as extended family. We listened as teenager Omar played his original compositions on a keyboard for us, as well as some songs by a musician he called “the Turkish Billy Joel.”

When the program was over, Omar played other popular songs by ear, including “Piano Man” by the American Billy Joel, which made me smile in recognition and welcome. This new generation will blend their parents’ culture and their American culture into a new and vibrant hybrid. The process is not without loss and pain, as my conversations with Ikbal underlined for me, but it is also full of hope and potential. I am grateful to Fatih and Selma for offering this window into a particular immigrant community to me and to many students at Carthage. Conversation with real people is the best antidote possible for religious and political divisions, and we are fortunate to have interpreters like them to bridge the gaps in our society.

Be a tour guide

Want to show Cameron Swallow your favorite part of Kenosha? Be a tour guide on the Welcome Home Tour.