WINDSOR, N.S. — Seventeen-year-old Sare Yorukoglu’s eyes twinkle when she recounts her very first Christmas.
She was 15 years old and quite new to Canada.
“Because we’re Muslim in Turkey, we don’t celebrate Christmas. We celebrate the new year. So, two years ago when I came here for the first time, Christmas was like magical for me,” said Yorukoglu. “It was my first Christmas with the presents and the huge tree, decorations, Santa Claus coming into the house giving me gifts — it was magical.”
She smiles as she describes what life has been like living with a host family in Bramber, and in particular, celebrating the holidays.
“I love Christmas so much because it kind of connects families together, I think. This is going to be my third Christmas in my life,” she said, while sitting in an empty classroom at Avon View, mere days before the holiday break.
“I love to give presents more than getting them but yeah, I just like the way that we spend time together eating turkey,” she said with a laugh. The favourite gift she’s received so far is a speaker that connects to wifi and allows her to set her alarm or play music.
Yorukoglu doesn’t stop smiling as she lists the amazing experiences she’s had since arriving in Windsor in 2016. For her, it’s been far more than an educational opportunity, it’s been an immersive cultural exchange.
Yorukoglu hails from Antalya, a southern coastal city in Turkey, and is participating in the Nova Scotia International Student Program. She’s one of about 1,400 ISP youth attending school in the province, and she has her sights set on graduating from Avon View High School in 2019.
Yorukoglu gushes when she talks about what Canada has to offer, and what new experiences she’s had due to pursuing her education in Windsor.
Yorukoglu spends the school year with Blair and Mary Dean Carman, in Bramber, and spends the summertime at home in Turkey. She says she loves being a “five-minute walk” to the water and enjoys how close she has become with her host family and fellow international students.
“I love them so much. It really feels like my real family,” says Yorukoglu of the couple who have been her Canadian ‘mom and dad’ since she first arrived. She has also developed close bonds with previous housemates who she refers to as her ‘sisters.’ Her current ‘sister’ is Maho Mikami, and she hails from Japan.
Yorukoglu says when she first arrived she was homesick, but she’s grown to love the journey, expressing gratitude for all the new experiences she’s had.
“It is hard at the beginning because you’re kind of homesick. When you need a hug from your mom, she’s not there,” she said, adding that as you begin to trust your host family and get to know more people, the transition becomes much easier.
She said Canadian culture — from food to the education system — is quite different from where she grew up. While she misses some Turkish food, she’s more than happy to have found new items to tempt her taste buds.
“I’m Muslim but I’m not really strict about the religion so I eat pork, which is really nice. I love bacon so much. And I love poutine and maple syrup. It’s really different,” she said, noting they do have donairs in common — though she maintains they originated in Turkey instead of in Halifax.
Yorukoglu, who professes that she isn’t a very good cook, occasionally makes traditional Turkish breakfasts, which she offers to share with her host family, and Turkish coffee, which she says pairs well with dessert.
She says the education system is quite a bit different. In Turkey, she went to school six days a week for nine hours a day. There wasn’t much flexibility in terms of what subjects you studied. She says she appreciates being able to customize her classes in Canada, with her favourite subject being chemistry.
“It’s really special here. Canadian people are really lucky, even if they don’t know they are.”
She hopes to pursue a degree at Dalhousie University or St. F.X. after graduating.
“I’m hoping to stay in Canada. I really like the culture here. People are friendly. They have this — I don’t know — lifestyle. Like everyone is almost happy. You go to a street and people say hi and good morning or people are opening doors for you and holding them. It’s nice little things that makes you want to stay here more.”
A wonderful ambassador
Tena Moyles, a home stay co-ordinator with the Nova Scotia International Student Program, screens the families that the students are going to be billeted to, helps with school orientation and basically serves as the mediator between the Canadian and foreign families.
Moyles says Yorukoglu has been quite involved since arriving in 2016, not only in the school but in the greater community. Most recently, she volunteered to help serve breakfast for seniors at the Royal Canadian Legion in Windsor.
“Sare likes to be involved. Because she likes to be involved and she likes to volunteer her time, and she likes to give back to the school and she likes to give back to the community, her presence makes people, I think, understand diversity a little bit better,” said Moyles.
She said Yorukoglu is one of the students who is helping to bridge the gap, helping people realize that while there are different traditions and cultures, there are many similarities.
“She’s incredible... From the time she came, we knew that she expected to graduate here and then to go on to one of our universities here in Nova Scotia and hopefully one day be able to become a Canadian citizen,” said Moyles.
“She’s very kind-hearted. She comes from a part of Turkey where she’s used to terrorist attacks. These are very well-to-do communities that her family has lived in but that’s very common in Turkey,” she continued.
“It’s not uncommon to have Turkish students where their parents are trying to get them somewhere where they know kids are going to be safe and that they’re going to be provided with a really great education.”
Moyles said the program currently places students from 34 different countries. In 2018 at Avon View High School, 43 students were placed representing 17 countries outside of Canada.
“It doesn’t hurt Canada to have immigrants moving in that can offer something, right? Our population is going down,” Moyles said, adding that Yorukoglu would “be a great addition for sure.”
Yorukoglu says the program has been a wonderful adventure and she would recommend it to anyone looking to experience a new culture.
“I would definitely recommend (the program) to other people because even if you don’t want to do things, they make you do things that makes you want to do things. You know? You’re really having a chance to explore a different culture and getting to know people better. You’re making a social network that you will never forget,” Yorukoglu said.
To learn more about the Nova Scotia International Student Program and how to become a host family, visit: https://nsisp.ca/