Armenian and Turkish youth has got together in Istanbul for the second phase of the project titled “Closed Borders Open Minds” after the first one in Yerevan May, 2014. This has been my second participation in an Armenian-Turkish project and there has been a few Armenian participants who have attended the first part as well. The Regional Studies Center has been carrying out this project as part of a consortium, funded by the European Union, for normalization between the two countries and I remember the exact words of one of the coordinators, Haykak Arshamyan back in Yerevan: “At the end of the day what matters most is the friendships that emerge out of such projects”. And that is exactly what seems to have happened.
Throughout the project trainings and free time social activities, I can not help but compare this initiative to several other cross-border cooperation projects I have been part of with young people from Greece and Bulgaria. I happen to remember some of the trainings from that period too, but most of what I remember is the person-to-person interaction that we have experienced and the friendships that were forged in those days. Similarly, this time with the Armenian young people, same thing has been happening.
Compared to the first phase of the projects there are a few things I can see being different. Back in Yerevan we were staying at a hotel not at the city center but about 10km outside, which required taxi transportation for 15 minutes and speaking no Armenian, some locals’ guidance for us every time we wanted to go to the center. Here in Istanbul, we were staying at the very heart of the city, right next to the famous Gezi Park, in Taksim. This meant that anyone could stroll around freely and being in one of the most cosmopolitan places in the world, it meant that one can even melt in crowds easily by herself without the help of any locals. In my opinion the interaction between locals and visitors helps creating bonds and contributes to the success of project goals.
A second significant difference between Yerevan and Istanbul was that this time there has been more personal gossip between participants compared to the first time, especially the ones that had already been together previously. This, in my opinion, is also a plus in the calculations as it means that we are not focusing on the national, political, top-down problematic situations but more on human interaction. Out of the social time we spent, there emerged more personal discussions first elaborating issues on individual level and later being flooded by ideas and inspiration, being creatively dedicated to future collaborations.
For me personally it seems like the actual success of this program will not be when (if) politicians and diplomat from both sides take their seats down on two sides of a table, but when we keep meeting and be able to have tea together in whatever country we may be. It is inspiring to see the young people’s interest in the normalization process and so many applications to be part of this project. As long as there are people willing to further the dialogue with the “other” side, there is always hope for more. Who knows, perhaps Hrant Dink’s foresight regarding the normalization.
In my opinion, the free time we got all together was the most productive part of the week. We have been to several places. Some places had been playing Armenian music and some playing shared tunes in both cultures. This seemed to surprise some of our guests as there was expectations of less inclusive social culture perhaps. Another surprising moment we had noted was the citation of Armenian architects that worked at the construction of Ottoman palaces in Istanbul, in the recent touristic guidebooks.
One major visit we had as a small group from among the participants was to Bosphorus University where our friends have enjoyed the beautiful view of the campus as well as the history and significance of this campus for Armenia. I am glad to have completed the program with such positive outcomes and raised hopes for future progress. Perhaps time may come to even bring the monument to humanity back some day with the normalization; yet being more realistic, of course we are focusing on the personal level and continue our dedication to the process.