Illinois Students Report from Turkey

Illinois students tell us how a recent reporting trip to Turkey challenged their views of the world on Chicago Tonight at 7:00 pm. Lindsay Prossnitz and Caroline Pahl are both recent graduates of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Read about their experiences reporting from Turkey in their personal blogs below. Visit the slideshow to see their experience in photos.

Lindsay Prossnitz

Doner kebab stands are a staple of Turkish cuisine/Lindsay Prossnitz

Daha fazla yaşamak. This specific phrase in the Turkish language means “live more.“ It was spoken to me one night in Istanbul when I was having dinner with a Turkish student who worked as a translator. I can’t think of a more appropriate phrase to describe the 17 days I spent in Turkey. From interviewing the editor of Turkish Vogue to holding a 2-week-old infant at a Syrian refugee camp to belly dancing on the Bosphorus with the ferry attendants, I can truly say that in Turkey I lived more. 

After arriving in Istanbul with nine other student reporters, we settled into a cozy five-story home in Beyoglu, the so-called “SoHo” of Istanbul. Our first assignment—find something to eat!! As it turns out, Turkish cuisine is a sensory delight: fragrant, colorful, and chock-full of flavor. It became apparent to us that FOOD would comprise the lion’s share of our blog…there was just so much to talk about! The more adventurous among us tried sheep brain stew or an intestine sandwich (both considered delicacies by the locals), but döner kebab from a street vendor and Turkish pastries (baklava, kadayifi, or my personal favorite-kunefe) quickly became favorites. Cuisine can say a lot about a culture, and Turkish cuisine emphasizes flavor, variety, and beauty. More importantly, it is an expression of the gracious Turkish hospitality.

Brewed to perfection, Lindsay's first cup of Turkish coffee in Istanbul/Lindsay Prossnitz

Coffee and tea are staples of Turkish society, and are offered just about everywhere. Drinking coffee and tea brought us together with the local people and, in fact, were the backdrop to many of my most memorable experiences in Turkey. I remember drinking tea in an ornately decorated living room while another student interviewed a woman who lived in an impoverished neighborhood of Istanbul called Tarlabasi. We listened intently as the woman described eloping against her parents’ wishes and moving to Istanbul. She proudly told us she would soon begin an elementary education program, having never gone to school as a child. However, the poor neighborhood where she now lives is slated to be gentrified by the government, meaning that she and her family will be displaced, along with many others.Displacement is a common occurrence in the region. Traveling to the southern province of Haytay, we met with dozens of Syrians who have been displaced and are now seeking haven in Turkish refugee camps. Security at these camps is tight and it’s difficult to get the government’s permission to visit them. We drove two and a half hours to the Kilis refugee camp, 500 meters from the border with Syria. Even in this almost surreal setting, Turkish hospitality prevailed. As we stood on the dusty road leading into the camp, waiting to hear whether or we would be allowed inside, guards came over and kindly offered us tea! Fortunately we were able to enter the camps and speak with several different refugees. It was the most humbling experience of my life--speaking with people who had been driven from their homes, leaving friends and family behind, yet still willing to share their stories.Lindsay sitting outside the Yayladagi refugee camp with Syrian children, as their parents are being interviewed by other reporters in the group/Saira AnwerThe last few moments at this camp will stay with me forever. Some of the refugees took us to speak with a woman who had just had her fifth child two weeks earlier, and had also recently been widowed. Her husband was killed trying to help other Syrian families cross the border to enter the camps. While my colleagues and I spoke to her via a translator, I held her 2-week old infant, surrounded by her other children. The youngest didn’t quite seem to understand what was going on, but you could see in the faces of the older children that they understood their father was gone forever.

We struggled to maintain our composure as we left the interview. Just then, an elderly man invited us to his bunker for coffee. At the same time, the camp’s supervisor was telling us that our time was up. Even as other refugees pleaded with him to let us stay, we were ushered towards the exit. As we walked along the path back to the entrance, the same older gentlemen came running after us with a pot of coffee in one hand, and three small cups in the other. Knowing we had just visited with the widow, he told us that it was a traditional mourning coffee, served at funerals, as he proceeded to pour a cup for me, my colleague Ash-har, and our Syrian translator. We gave him our heartfelt thanks and swigged it down in one gulp.

My stay in Turkey flew by so quickly, but the experiences will remain with me for a lifetime. Being a reporter allowed me to meet so many interesting people from different backgrounds.  And while I may not have seen the entire Hagia Sophia, I am confident that I SAW the real Turkey.

Lindsay Prossnitz is a recent graduate of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, with a B.S. in Broadcast Journalism, and a focus in Communication and French.

Caroline Pahl

Turkish flags wave in the foreground of the Blue Mosque/Caroline Pahl

Four years of experiences from summer internships and classes at the University of Illinois led up to this moment: getting to report abroad for three weeks in Turkey. I couldn’t think of a better way to cap off my undergraduate career in journalism. My International Reporting class and I spent a semester reading up on Turkish culture, researching for our story topics, keeping up with news about Turkey and the Syrian uprisings, and listening to lectures from professors who specialized in the politics, religion, and economy of Turkey. I had the equipment, the basic knowledge, and the determination to get as much out of this trip as I possibly could.

I was amazed at how much access I got while reporting about Islam in Turkey, in the refugee camps, or even getting a behind-the-scenes look at how Turkish coffee is made. I didn’t have professional credentials to report. But the people I was interviewing or shooting videos of didn’t care. They wanted to share their stories. They were eager to help me understand their situation. They were delighted that I was there to document their situation in the camps, or better understand Islam and debunk American prejudice against Muslims.

My main focus for the trip was reporting on Islam in Turkey. My class and I took a trip to Eyüp, Turkey, the fourth most holy site in Islam. I marched up the stairs of the Eyüp Sultan Mosque with my camera and tripod at the ready so that I could get some shots of one of the five daily prayers and leave without intruding on this intimate moment for practicing Muslims. However, the Muslim women wanted to interact with me. They showed me how to pin my headscarf on correctly, smiled at the camera, and helped me figure out where to stand so I get good shots of them praying without getting in the way. Using the universal language of smiling and pointing, I realized that I was getting a firsthand experience of Turkish hospitality. 

Lindsay and Caroline went through the motion of prayer at a mosque in Izmit, Turkey with one of their peers, Saira, who is Muslim/Latifah Al-Hazza

At one point our class flew to the Hatay province of Turkey. Our plan for visiting that region was to get access into the refugee camps on the Turkey-Syria border. I got to interview refugees from three different refugee camps. I read about the uprisings in Syria and the refugee situation on the Turkish border during my semester-long, pre-trip research. But I don’t think that any article or video could have prepared me to hear the refugees’ stories in person. I interviewed one Syrian mother who had to escape with her three young children to a camp. They could only grab a couple items of clothing and some family photos. She broke down in tears at the mention of those photos. The photos represented the home and the stability she had before the uprisings.

The trip was a very humbling experience that renewed my appreciation for journalism, as a means of helping people like the Syrian refugees and Muslims in Turkey be better understood by readers across the world.

Caroline Pahl is a recent graduate of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign with a B.S. in Broadcast Journalism and a minor in French.