A delicate third-grade girl wanted to know if we knew anything about NASA. She wanted to become an astronaut. Her classmate, a vocal young man wearing the blue and white sweater of the school uniform, asked if we knew anything about archeology. He once found part of an ostrich egg and decided he would become an archeologist. Another wanted to be an architect. The rest of the girls were split between becoming teachers or doctors. Many boys wanted to be policemen or join the “special forces.”
Our third day in Istanbul was spent visiting an elementary school and a high school in Gaziosmompasa (Gazi), Istanbul’s poorest district. This was where the Cleveland/Turkish “Engaging Marginalized Youth” (EMY) project has been playing out over the past year. Our group was there to see the end result of a year’s work by Turkish artists with the children in these schools. This is an unprecedented program and, for virtually all of these children, the first contact with contemporary art and artists.
At the elementary school, we met in the library and the children sang a song for us. Ismail Douglas of our group had his guitar and did an impromptu jam session with their EMY music teacher on violin at the request of one child who wanted to show off his drumming skills with them.
We would come back later in the week to see a sketch, with music they had created over the school year. It’s about a toy shop and one toy that keeps getting left on the shelf because no one wants to buy it. Until one day…
At the high school, a dance ensemble did not have time for us because they wanted to keep rehearsing for their showcase – which we would see later, as well. But the theater group was eager to meet. These teens were quite eloquent when asked what their experience has been like in this project – the first time any of them had taken an art class.
“The dreams I have can become real here,” said one girl. “I lost my shyness,” said another. “It took courage just to come here. Now I know I have courage.”
The play these teens wrote and will perform for us is about their families and how they emigrated to Istanbul from many different regions of Turkey. One girl said, “Before, I was just sad about my grandmother’s story. But now, playing it, it has become my story. I understand her and how she had to live.”
And a young man was very thoughtful in saying, “The world is a stage. We perform on this small stage. But if we do well at this, we will do well on a larger stage.”
Finally, the young people turned to question us. I was impressed with the perceptiveness – and the challenge – in one question in particular: “We all have prejudices. You and us. Why do you come here? Why are you interested in us?”
We all had to think before we answered.