Monday, July 12, 2010

Our Humanitarian Mission Ends

Our humanitarian work as volunteers for LDS Charities in Ankara, Turkey, has ended, and we look back on it with great satisfaction. We worked with local organizations that were already accomplishing good things, and we helped them identify projects that would help the people they helped become more self-reliant. We bought from the local economy and sometimes worked with other organizations (such as local Lions Clubs) that could provide other services, such as painting or providing consumable materials.

We couldn’t help everyone who approached us. The organizations had to meet some specifications; for example, they had to have good leadership practices and well defined goals that included making their clients more self-reliant. Occasionally we visited organizations which were fairly well equipped, and we knew our money could be better invested in much needier ones. Our interpreter became expert at bargaining, and often vendors were so impressed with our charity that they gave us a discount or added their own donation to our order. Our projects only included long-lasting goods; in other words, we didn’t buy paper or other disposable supplies. Here is a summary of some of the work we accomplished.

We helped 12 schools. In Turkey the government builds the school, pays the teachers, and provides a few basic textbooks. Each school must rely on donations for even the most basic needs beyond that. Some of the schools we helped were special schools for disabled students, even one for children with leukemia. Some were regular schools in neighborhoods with poor, immigrant parents. One of our most satisfying projects was to provide simple whiteboards for the sixteen classrooms and bulletin boards for the hallways in a school in a poor neighborhood. When we visited the school after their installation, it was wonderful to see student art filling the hallways and visit classrooms where that small change had made teaching so much more effective. We built science labs in two schools, so students could perform experiments instead of simply reading about them. We bought many computers, projectors, storage cabinets, student lockers, desks, tables and chairs. We bought abacuses, puppet theaters, and other educational toys. Each school was different, and we met many wonderful people who were working very hard to improve education for Turkey’s children. The young children were very sweet and loving to us. They called us “Aunt Elizabeth” and “Uncle Ron.” We loved them, too!

We worked with six organizations that serve the blind. Because of so many close-relation marriages, there are many handicapped people in Turkey, and there are many organizations that try to help them live independently. We bought three shipments of canes for the blind, one of them being very small canes for use in an elementary school for the blind. We bought electronic readers which greatly enlarge print so that partially-sighted students could read regular texts in addition to Braille. We also bought tables and chairs for an organization that tutored blind high school students so that they could pass the university entrance examinations. It was wonderful to see successful blind university students return to coach other young blind students. (Many blind students have successful careers in government and law.) For two different organizations we bought computers and specialized software so blind students could get aural feedback as they typed.

We worked with eight different medical organizations. Our donations ranged from highly technical surgical equipment for a university hospital (for life-saving operations on newborns) to very basic medical equipment (blood pressure and glucose measurements devices, etc.) for health clinics in poor neighborhoods where they lacked even the most basic equipment. We bought an X-ray developer and other medical equipment for TB clinics. We bought portable sonogram units for nurses who visit pregnant women in villages without medical care. We completely outfitted a medical exam room for a facility for disabled youth. Some of our most heart-wrenching visits were to homes where they care for the elderly and completely bed-ridden. We were able to buy adjustable hospital beds and patient lifts, and it made us very happy to know that we made many lives more comfortable.

We bought regular and arm-braced crutches and donated many wheelchairs. It was very touching to see families carry their disabled members into the wheelchair donation ceremonies, because we saw very clearly that one wheelchair liberated at least two people—the disabled person and the caregiver. LDS Charities is one of the largest distributors of wheelchairs in the world. Most of our wheelchairs are currently produced in China, but we were able to participate with specialists who came from Salt Lake to investigate a factory in Ankara that may produce some of the “rough rider” wheelchairs that are so helpful to strong young people. We completed an order for 250 wheelchairs, but it will arrive in the next few months and our replacement couple will distribute them.

Some of our most rewarding experiences were in helping people to become employed because we know how essential work is to personal happiness. We helped a cafe run by schizophrenics. We visited that place several times and loved the young people who were grateful to have a place where they could work and associate with others who understood their problems. We bought some computers and a projector for their “book corner,” and many students and people came to learn more about this disease, which is not well understood in Turkey. We helped establish a sheltered workshop for people who are paralyzed. We purchased industrial sewing machines, and the organization provided training and job placement as possible. We bought industrial sewing machines for a women’s prison so that women inmates could receive training during their incarceration and become employed after release. We were impressed with the intensive training program the prison provided, which ended in a license to open a tailoring shop. Visiting a Turkish prison was an experience in itself!

One of the goals of LDS Charities is to provide comfort and aid to those in distress. Once there was a flood in Istanbul, and we were asked to join the couple who lived there. We used $15,000 from our humanitarian account to provide a down payment on immediate assistance—hygiene kits and blankets—for those who suffered. We helped to distribute a few kits, but we worked with the municipality, who provided volunteer labor to assemble the kits and distribute them—about $200,000 worth. When an earthquake occurred in Eastern Turkey, where there is no one from LDS Charities “on the ground,” the Humanitarian Fund contributed $200,000 to the Red Crescent so they could provide hygiene kits and blankets for the victims. One of our favorite projects to relieve suffering was to provide winter boots for a whole village school. The village was so poor that when it snowed, parents kept their children home because they didn’t have warm coats or good boots. We provided the boots and our interpreter found another organization who donated new jackets. That was a wonderful project!

In total, we spent over $200,000 on humanitarian projects. Recipients tried to thank us, and we always reminded them that we were just representatives of LDS Charities and that the money came from small donations made by many people all over the world. For those who are regular donors, thank you! We can assure you that your donations are very carefully and thoughtfully spent.

When we left 18 months ago, we felt we were making a sacrifice. Now we realize that it has been an honor and one of the great experiences of our lives. We’re very grateful to our family who encouraged us to come and especially to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for this amazing opportunity.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Saying Goodbye to the Ankara Branch

It was hard to say goodbye to our dear friends in the Ankara Branch. We have loved their friendship and great examples to us, and we will miss them dearly.

Elizabeth hated to say goodbye to her little Primary children. At the end of sacrament meeting, one or the other of the smallest children would always come take her finger and lead her away to the Primary room because they knew this would be their special time together.

Ron and Mehmet have been the only two Melchizedek priesthood holders in the Branch and have shared many great experiences together. Mehmet’s family, originally from Tarsus, was converted by the Apostle Paul; and Mehmet’s love for the gospel is deep and sincere. We will always remember his example of faithfulness.

We had many Turkish people at our last meeting together on July 4th. Three were visitors: Lokman (our investigator) brought his cousin, and Ioana brought her husband. We had a great, Spirit-filled meeting. A few more Turks—Laura’s husband, Selim, and Emily’s husband, Nehir, and his cousin—joined us after the meetings for our shared lunch (“Linger Longer”). We had American food (BBQ sandwiches, potato salad, and apple pie) and it seemed very festive and fun to be together one last time.

We’ll truly miss our dear friends in the Ankara Branch!

Thursday, June 17, 2010


We went with our interpreter, Seda, and her 13-year old son, Barkın, to visit their relatives in Kastamonu, a lovely old city in the mountains near the Black Sea. We left the Anatolian plain and crossed the Ilgaz mountains; and the terrain went from dry, rolling hills to steep, deeply forested mountains. The little villages high on the mountainsides looked almost Alpine, except that at the center of each village were the dome and minarets of a mosque.

Kostamonu has a castle high above the city. Built by the Romans, it was also used by the Byzantines and Ottomans. The city also has many lovely old Ottoman buildings. The sultans had rewarded military leaders with land grants in the area, and there were many wealthy citizens there who had been influential in the Ottoman Empire. We stayed in an Ottoman mansion that had been converted to a guest house, and it was interesting to see the symmetry of the building: the house was divided into equal halves, with two staircases accessing all three floors. The doors between the halves could be closed when company came so that the women and men could be entertained separately without contact. The Ottoman houses always featured an upstairs porch that overhung the street. It was shuttered so that the women who were sequestered in the house could look out on the activities in the street without being seen.

Many years ago there was a monastery in Kastamonu, but when it was abandoned, the monk’s cells were converted into little stores. Seda’s cousins owned a shop there, and we enjoyed visiting with her and looking at all the other little shops.

The water of Kastamonu is supposedly very healthful, so we drank a small sip from a public fountain. There are many fountains in the city, with silver cups chained nearby. One user just rinses the cup for the next.

In the early years of the Turkish Republic, Kastamonu was site of a famous speech by Kamal Ataturk. The sultans had adopted many practices from the Arabs—the wearing by men of baggy pants and the fez, and the heavy veiling and sequestering of women were two practices which were foreign to the Turks but had been adopted by the Ottomans. Ataturk wanted the republic to look to the West for inspiration instead of the East. In Kastamonu, Ataturk gave a famous speech which began, “This,” he said, displaying his panama hat, “is a hat; and from now on we will be wearing this instead of a fez.” There is a hat museum in the city!

The region’s women are famous for fighting bravely during the war of independence. One woman in particular is honored in statues all over Turkey, as she carried artillery shells (some of them 200 pounds) on her back to the battlefield. Women wore distinctive hats. Seda models one which has a “married woman” design.

Seda’s aunt owns a farm on a large land grant near Kastamonu. We visited her for parts of two days, eating lunch one day and breakfast the next in the 200-year old farm house. It was fascinating. Sabiha Hamın, the aunt, runs a sort of restaurant in the old house, with two women to help her by cooking authentic food. They raise all their food and have a herd of cows for ayran (a yogurt drink) and other milk products. After eating etli ekmek made by the two helpers, we spent the rest of the afternoon enjoying the farm. Two little Turkish girls took us for a walk, and we picked wild strawberries in the forest. We admired a pot which was dated 1690. “This pot is older than your country,” Seda’s cousin said.

We were reluctant to leave the cool of the mountains and the beauty of Kastamonu to return to Ankara, but we have many things to complete in our few remaining weeks here. Earlier this week we visited a school where LDS Charities had donated a science lab. Tomorrow we'll visit a school for the visually impaired, to which LDS Charities donated several reading machines. Where has the time gone?

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Visit from Our Family

We had a truly wonderful reunion with family members who came to visit us the last part of May. We met Julie, Jenni and her daughter Allison, and Chris and Kristi in Istanbul. After a few days there, we went to the Aegean area to see Greek and Roman ruins. Our dear friend Vern drove us around in his van, and while we were running around to see the ruins, he planned gourmet meals for us. Julie had to return after a week, but the other family members were able to come to Ankara for a few more days, with a little side visit to Cappadocia.

Pictures include travelers in front of Dolmabahçe Palace (Istanbul), library at Ephesus, ruins in Dydima, Afrodisias and Pergamom. In Cappadocia, Ron is standing in a baptismal font in an underground city, balloons fill the sky in the early morning, we hike in the weird natural formations and drink apple tea with a family whose home is in a cave.

What a great visit! We loved being together. We didn’t waste time dawdling or sleeping, so we were pretty tired at the end. We were able to see an amazing array of Turkey’s treasures. This was an experience of a lifetime for all of us! Best of all was being with our family, whom we have greatly missed.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Humanitarian Conference in Istanbul

Every year the Europe East Area has a conference for humanitarian missionary couples, and this year it was in Istanbul. It was a wonderful conference, with 25 couples from Armenia, Baltics, Ukraine, several areas of Russia (Moscow, Samara, St. Petersburg, Rostov, Yekaterinburg, Novosibirsk, and Vladivostok), Kazakhstan, Georgia, Belarus, and Turkey. We had good instruction, but best of all we shared experiences and enjoyed being with each other. We loved spending time with President Wolfgang Paul of the Seventy and some of our other leaders whom we previously knew only through the Internet.

Istanbul was beautiful—full of tulips and flowering trees. This was our fifth trip to the city, and we enjoyed all our favorite sites but also added a few new experiences. We went to several museums, among the most interesting the large and impressive Military Museum. There we saw armor worn by Genghis Khan’s warriors. They must have been huge warriors—no wonder the Europeans were frightened!

We also visited the Archaeological Museum, which housed a large collection of Hellenistic and Roman statues as well as a vast collection of other artifacts. Before, we always thought of Greece as the location of the Hellenistic culture—but there are an equal (and perhaps greater) number of Hellenistic sites in Turkey.

One of our favorite museums was a Christian church (now a museum) which was built in 1100 and decorated with frescoes and mosaics in 1300. Much of the inside of the church is still intact, and the frescoes and mosaics are breath-taking.

We walked along the Theodosian Walls, a great chain of double walls with 11 fortified gates and 192 towers, which protected Constantinople’s landward side against invasion for 1,000 years (412-1453) and then protected the Ottoman Empire’s Istanbul until 1700. At one end of the wall there are seven towers enclosing a dungeon, which we explored. We climbed the walls for a spectacular view of the Bosphorus.

We came home tired but very happy after spending four days with other couples. We found that, although we have less contact with other missionaries than most (we are alone here), we have less governmental interference. We love Turkey!

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Adventure in Cyprus

In order to renew our visas for our last three months, we went to the nearest foreign country, Cyprus. It’s beautiful, with plants and climate like Southern California at this time of year.

Nicosia is the capital city of both North Cyprus (under Turkish occupation since 1974) and the Republic of Cyprus in the south. Turkish is spoken in the north and Greek in the south. There is a wide no-man’s land separating the two parts of the city, under UN control. We landed in North Cyprus at night, went to the checkpoint and then had to drag our suitcases through the abandoned area to the other side, where we were able to take a taxi to our hotel in the south section of the city.

Old Nicosia is enclosed by huge walls built by the Venetians in about 1500. The walls and bastions are still intact, and the few gates in and out of the old city are still in use.

Because of the long “administration” of the British, cars drive on the left side of the road, and most cars are right-hand drive. Because of that and the signs in Greek, we were a little disoriented at times in the south! But we loved the many beautiful museums there. We also loved seeing Greek orthodox churches and a whole museum full of icons and mosaics in the south. We also loved the Cyprus Museum, with exhibits dating back to 10,000 BC.

In the northern section of the city Turkish is spoken. There are no Christian churches remaining. Some of the beautiful gothic churches built from 1200 to 1350 still stand but are in service now as mosques. It is a little sad to see all the art painted out (representations of people or animals are forbidden in Islam) and very strange to see a minaret stuck on the side of a gothic church complete with flying buttresses. But of course the Turks have always been the soldiers of Islam and their victories always included replacing the existing religion with Islam. (That is one reason for the enduring hard feelings between Turkish and Greek neighbor states.) In the north we also saw an old caravansary (inn for caravans) built in 1572. (Shown above.)

We had only one day to see the sights, and we nearly walked our feet off. That evening we relaxed with some Greek food at a little café near our hotel. Our return flight left very early the next morning, but we returned with great memories—and new visas!

Monday, April 5, 2010

Easter in Turkey

We had a wonderful Easter with our friends and the Ankara Branch family. We had already enjoyed a little of General Conference weekend. The Saturday “morning” session came on from 7-9 p.m. on the Internet. We didn’t stay up to 1 a.m. to watch the “afternoon” session! We had hoped to be able to watch a session of General Conference together on Sunday morning, but no Turkish (or German) translation was available, so we had a regular sacrament meeting so that everyone could understand. We’ll watch the Sunday morning session in a few weeks, when the one session that is translated into Turkish is available.

After meetings, we came to our apartment for Easter dinner. It was a real American feast, with ham, turkey breast, potato casserole, green beans, and biscuits. We even had apple pie and a strawberry dessert--along with jelly beans, M&Ms and peeps. Eight adults and three children came, and we all had a wonderful day together. It was a lovely end to the day to watch General Conference again in the evening.

We continue to enjoy our Humanitarian work and feel we are accomplishing much here.