Going in with eyes wide open in Istanbul

Ida Abhari | Daily Trojan

Ida Abhari | Daily Trojan

The road to studying abroad for me probably involved a bit more twists and turns than for those who opted for more traditional destinations — and of course, I probably brought some of it upon myself for selecting Boğaziçi University in Istanbul, Turkey early Fall 2015.

First came the email from Overseas Studies that the program was subject to being canceled by USC for safety reasons. They gave us the option to apply for a few other universities, and I hesitantly chose the University of Edinburgh as my backup. No offense to Edinburgh of course — I’ve heard great things about it as an institution and city — but I, perhaps irrationally, wanted to go to Istanbul. Ultimately, after the Turkish elections, USC made the decision to continue with the program. The three other USC students who had also selected Istanbul, however, dropped out.

Next came lectures from my mom. “It’s not a good time for Turkey,” she said. And she had a point. Istanbul, and Turkey as a whole, are beautiful places with plenty of cultural heritage and awe-inspiring natural sites, home to ancient and great civilizations ranging from the Hittites, Byzantines and Ottomans. Turkish people are welcoming hosts, eager to show you a country and culture of which they are very proud. Though officially over 90 percent Muslim, Turkey is a strictly secular democracy and has been in the process of negotiating to join the European Union.

In the last few years, however, Turkey has been undergoing plenty of political change. Domestically, potential changes to the country’s constitution could significantly alter the country’s democratic system. Internationally, Turkey’s 511-mile long border with Syria has seen much movement across it, from Syrian refugees looking for a path to Europe to Turkish troops and extremist members of Syrian rebel groups, including ISIS. Furthermore, an internal 30-year long violent conflict with Kurdish groups, who have been labeled terrorists by both the American and Turkish governments and have targeted civilians in attacks inside Turkey, has restarted this year after a ceasefire that lasted a few short years.

So, I went in with eyes wide open. I think it would be hard to go in otherwise. After the Paris attacks in November of 2015 that killed 130 people – the city’s second instance of terror after the January Charlie Hebdo attacks — I was mournful, but also mindful that violence could happen anywhere, as it had in Beirut, Garissa, and San Bernardino, as well as countless other places. And unfortunately, a few short weeks later, it did — in Istanbul, on Jan. 12, a suicide bomber detonated his weapons in the middle of a group of German tourists visiting the Hagia Sofia, a former Byzantine church and Ottoman mosque that is now a museum.

“I know why you want to go,” my mom said. “You like history, you want to go somewhere that feels more authentic. But it’s not worth it right now.” Her words definitely had truth to them. But I had to make my own decision. And after talking to several people in Istanbul, friends who were there last year and obsessively consulting the news and other sources, I made the decision to go. It wasn’t easy, on me, or my family. But so far, I am supremely happy I am here.

Boğaziçi’s campus is on the European side of Istanbul, away from the hustle and bustle of the city center, but close enough that a short metro ride reminds you that the city, is, in fact, Europe’s largest with over 15 million people. The university, older than USC, started in the 19th century as Robert College, founded by Americans, and overlooks the Bosphorus strait that divides Europe and Asia. The campus, and Istanbul and the country as a whole, is filled with cats and dogs that call it home and have a veterinarian and a student club dedicated to looking after them. I’m one of “those” people who is peculiarly obsessed with cats, so the campus is basically a dream come true. You can’t really sit down anywhere to enjoy the breathtaking sea views without a dog or group of cats coming over to be pet.

The other students I’ve met here are, like me, aware of the additional risks present in Istanbul and Turkey. But we’re also aware of how infinitesimal they are — and also how, unfortunately, nowadays, they are almost impossible to escape from in any corner of the world. C’est la vie.