Bridging Divides: The Turkish Cultural Center brings a taste of Turkey to Harrisburg.
Sait OnalKunkel Plaza was decked out with tents, tables and people. Stepping onto the sunken steps on the coolish, stunning July evening, I stopped the first man I encountered to inquire who was in charge of the event. He graciously introduced me to his wife and children as he ushered me to my target.
The coordinator of the event, Sait Onal, greeted me with a wide smile, a handshake and encouragement to join the group and enjoy food with them. Dressed in a T-shirt and shorts, I sheepishly inquired about the suitability of my attire. He assured me that it was fine and once more heartily urged me to join them for food.
Onal serves as president of the newly formed Harrisburg Turkish Cultural Center. The center, which opened in June, is one of a number of Turkish Cultural centers on the East Coast. These centers fall under the umbrella of the Turkic American Alliance, headquartered in Washington, D.C.
This event, an outdoors iftar dinner, the meal that ends the daily fast during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, ushered in one of the many 3rd in The Burg events the newly formed Turkish Cultural Center hopes to hold for the community.
From its office on N. 3rd Street across from the state Capitol complex, the cultural center serves as a hub from which the Turkish community can connect with the people of Harrisburg.
It does this in two ways. First, it encourages the public to visit the center, making the facility available for community use. The center has already offered the use of its meeting room, with an enviable view of the Capitol, to state government officials.
Second, and more importantly according to Onal, is to “reach out to neighbors to tell them who we are, represent our religion, culture and values.”
Onal said that “culture is something you must live, taste” and that happens when people interact with those different from themselves.
To facilitate this cultural understanding, the center also hosts trips to Turkey. These trips, typically but not exclusively held in the summer, allow those interested to get an intimate view of Turkish life—life not often experienced during the usual tourist excursion, said Onal.
“Most Americans have no concept of what it is to be Turkish,” he said.
He feels that, if Turkish people wish to have their culture and values understood, they must go out and tell others. He wants people to be comfortable asking questions about their way of life.
Joyce Davis, president and CEO of the World Affairs Council of Harrisburg—as well as the city’s director of communications—said that the Turkish Cultural Center is “dedicated to bridging cultural divides.”
These divides exist also for newly arrived Turkish immigrants, she said. The center, according to Davis, will assist new immigrants with the challenges of adapting to a new culture.
The center also plans to build economic bridges. Both Davis and Onal said that the center hopes to create economic relationships between Turkey and Harrisburg to attract Turkish businesses to the area.
While economic development represents a pragmatic reason for the center, Davis said that the center will “help people in our region better understand our world.”
Onal feels that this understanding will assist people in recognizing our many similarities rather than focusing on differences.
Religion is one area that lends itself to conflicts, but Onal states that the Abrahamic religions—Judaism, Christianity and Islam—share many of the same beliefs, foundational prophets and sacred texts.
Turkey’s geographic distance can make it seem especially foreign and exotic to Americans. Onal, however, says that “many things Americans value have roots in Turkey.” These include Mount Ararat, the Biblical resting place of Noah’s Ark; Turkish owned Godiva chocolates; and St. Nicholas, America’s beloved Santa Claus, who was born in Turkey.
The United States, Onal said, makes many Turks feel at home. Here, he said, they are accepted more easily than in many other parts of the world.
That feeling of home is especially apparent in Harrisburg, where the view from Kunkel Plaza across the Susquehanna evokes the feeling of sitting on the banks of the Bosphorus strait in Istanbul. This isn’t lost on the iftar dinner guests, who appreciated the setting for the breaking of the fast.
My interview with Onal ended as my first encounter with him began, with Turkish hospitality— food in the form of baklava, a delectable confection made of nuts, filo dough, honey and butter, lots of butter.
The center’s goal of relationship building was evident in my short time there.
Leaving the center, I felt that I’d gleaned much from the conversation and have a greater understanding of the Turkish community’s culture, beliefs and desire to contribute to the quality of life in Harrisburg.
The Harrisburg Turkish Cultural Center is located at 500 N. 3rd St., Harrisburg. Hours are daily, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. To contact the center, call 717-317-9657, email Sait Onal at email@example.com or visit www.tccpenn.org.