University of Louisville graduate and Paintsville native Morgan Blair spent nine months in Gaziantep, Turkey, as a 2015 Fulbright Scholar teaching English to the community. During her time there, she saw firsthand the impact of displaced Syrians and a country in peril.
Blair, a 2014 graduate of the College of Arts and Sciences, now works in UofL’s Office of International Student and Scholar Services and with the U.S. Department of State Institute on Contemporary American Literature hosted by UofL. The English and humanities major spoke to UofL News about her time in Turkey during the Syrian refugee crisis.
UofL News: What was the most challenging part of the trip?
Blair: A combination of the language barrier and also continually undoing my own stereotypes that arose due to the general distrust and dislike of ‘foreigners’ in my city, in particular non-Muslim Westerners. I think that language is essential to reducing the tensions that otherwise might exist between individuals of two different cultures. At the same time that I was hoping English would provide this critical bridge between my Turkish and Syrian students, I, too, needed Turkish to understand and appreciate my host culture.
UofL News: What was the best part of the trip?
Blair: The best part of my Fulbright experience was the plethora of relief organizations in my city for Syrians. It felt impossible not to become involved in various community centers, libraries, and medical organizations teaching English. My Fulbright teaching experience at the university was challenging as well as rewarding, but — as was the case during my years at UofL — my deep involvement with community organizations was what motivated me daily.
UofL News: If you could do it again, what would you do differently?
Blair: I would have taken more books on contemporary American literature with me as resources (for English language books) were scarce. Most of all, I would have studied the host-country language (Turkish) more intensely before my departure.
UofL News: Was this the type of academic and cultural experience you expected when you won your Fulbright award?
Blair: My academic and cultural experience in Turkey has exceeded my initial expectations and I am so thankful for this. I did not expect so many opportunities to design and lead community literacy projects, collaborate with relief organizations, or attend academic conferences. In other words, my experience provided me with a professionalism that I did not think possible this early in my academic career.
UofL News: What was the most surprising part of the trip?
Blair: The great amount of Syrians leading or working in medical and relief organizations with projects in Turkey and Syria. My initially naïve view of ‘NGO life’ involved Europeans and Americans as the leaders helping the passive Syrians, which sadly I think is a common view. However, the leadership of Syrians helping Syrians is what defines relief efforts in Gaziantep and gives the community a unique character.
UofL News: Did the trip change your perspective? If so, how?
Blair: The trip changed so many of my different perspectives in life, but the most changed perspective involves how Americans are perceived by other cultures. Via the comments of my students and peers, my own experiences involving my nationality, witnessing how other Americans interact socially in a foreign culture, and viewing the conversations of Americans from outside of the U.S., my image of Americans has been humbled.
UofL News: What would you tell others who may be considering academic study in an unstable part of the world?
Blair: I would tell others to spend some time self-reflecting in order to decide if what they would be doing was worth the challenge and risk. At a certain point during my grant period, I was offered the chance to return home to the U.S. due to security concerns regarding my placement along the Syrian border. This moment solidified for me that staying in Gaziantep was worth the risk I was taking, for I could not imagine my life without teaching English to such a motivated, appreciative and resilient community.