I will never forget the day I met my host father, Mark, in the arrivals terminal at Bishop International airport. Mark offered his hand and greeted me by saying, “Merhaba,” which means hello in Turkish. I was both surprised and happy at the sincerity of his greeting and instantly felt very close to Mark. My first impression proved true, and throughout the year I had a very strong relationship with my host family.
We did many things together such as playing games, going out, visiting other cities and more. We were learning from each other’s cultures every moment we spent together. It wasn’t always easy, I sometimes had problems but we solved the problems together. When I faced a challenge, I did not give up. I wanted to achieve my goals. In the end, I was their son, and they were my parents.
Like me, my host parents are also blind. Thus, I hardly had any difficulty due to my disability. Everything in my home was accessible. We had talking clocks, phones, thermometers, and appliances, and a braille typewriter, all of which made our lives more accessible. Since my host parents are blind, it was easy for them to help me socially and technically. They always talked with me in order to understand my feelings and thoughts.
My host parents were eager to show me American culture and were also interested in learning about Turkish culture. I was extremely happy whenever my host mom would tried to cook Turkish meals and I sometimes thought to myself, “Other than being exchange student, what else could make these emotions possible for me?” There is no answer yet. I am so lucky to have had such a caring host family.
Now that I have returned to Turkey, I am studying at Anadolu University majoring in English Language Teaching while also studying International Relations. After university, I would like to pursue post-graduate study in the U.S. My YES experience made me realize that only you can decide what you can or cannot do. Specifically, my exchange experience inspired me to work in disability rights. I became aware that governments are obligated to give us our rights, not because they think we are to be pitied, but because we are human beings like everyone else and require certain rights due to our disabilities.
The most important issue for disabled people is accessibility. For example, travel is a significant right for everyone, but disabled people can travel freely only if roads, buses, trains, and stations are accessible. We should always go after our rights to make an accessible life possible.
My experiences also directed my interest to work with multicultural vocations including people with disabilities. I would like to work in an international school, specialized school, university, or embassy and be responsible for exchange students with disabilities. No matter what kind of job I will be doing, I will try to do my best.
The advice I would give high school students who are considering applying to the YES exchange program is, “Hey Turkish teenagers! Believe in yourself. You can overcome every obstacle. Your disability is your power. You and your family may have some worries about spending a year in an unknown culture, but never mind the differences. Just let it go. During your exchange year, you will learn that the differences are the colors of life.”
The Youth Exchange and Study (YES) program is sponsored by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.