GLEN RIDGE, NJ — In response to the devastating, Feb. 6 earthquake in their native country, members of the borough’s Turkish community held a fundraiser and were uplifted by its success.
Their effort, “A Turkish Night,” occurred April 22, at the Glen Ridge Congregational Church. More than 200 people attended and $42,000 was raised for relief efforts in Turkey and Syria.
On Friday, May 5, five of the fundraiser’s organizers spoke to this newspaper at the Glen Ridge Public Library. Those individuals were Levent Mamak and his wife, Semra Oz; Murat Uzundag and his wife, Yeliz; and Aycon Uzun. According to Mamak, he had been approached by resident Megan Giulianelli whose idea it was to do the fundraiser.
“We put our friends together at my house,” Mamak said. “Everyone but Megan was Turkish.”
Ten people were at that meeting. They first decided what committees should be formed. Oz, a Realtor, and Yeliz Uzundag, who has a hospitality background, were the food committee.
“We decided on a sit-down dinner,” Mamak said. “But we didn’t know where it would be held.”
“We had never done this before,” said Murat Uzundag. “We enjoy entertaining our friends. It was a simple idea that made something beautiful.”
The treasurer of the enterprise was Sinem Boyeri. She was also in charge of entertainment. Auctions were to be handled by Derya Akturk and Serpil Can.
“The Turkish women made it happen,” Uzun interjected.
“I would consider Megan a Turkish woman, too, for her effort,” he said.
The earthquake killed an estimated 47,000 people in Turkey and Syria. Uzun, who teaches at Montclair State University, said the destruction ultimately affected 25 million people.
“The entire country is grieving even though some of us didn’t lose immediate family,” she said. “From far away, you feel helpless and guilty.”
Murat Uzundag, who has a hospitality background, as does his wife, said the fundraiser was especially personal to him. This was because he was in Turkey on Aug. 19, 1999, when an earthquake killed 17,000 and left 250,000 homeless.
“Being there and seeing it and now being 1,000 miles away and not being able to help and this idea came about, I was very passionate.”
In 1999, he was especially close to the devastation.
“I was working in a hotel,” he said. “I went to translate, to help a rescue team.”
Mamat, an IT manager, said he lost friends in the 1999 earthquake. He had lived in Yalova, the area where the earthquake struck. He moved to America in 1991.
“The point is, whether that earthquake or this one, we are always connected to people in Turkey,” he said.
A turning point for the organizers was when the Glen Ridge Congregational Church donated its large hall for the fundraiser. Murat Uzundag said that changed the dynamics of what they were attempting.
“We were thinking, how big would the fundraiser be, and we were cost-conscious,” he said. “Without a venue, we were lost. When the church offered to help, it was this idea coming together. And people in this town don’t know the Turkish community. I didn’t know how much Glen Ridge was going to embrace this. Partly, we were telling people, knowingly or unknowingly, there is a Turkish community.”
“That wasn’t our aim,” added Yeliz, his wife.
“I was overwhelmed by the phone calls from my non-Turkish friends,” Oz said, adding that half the people at the event were not Turkish.
Nonetheless, a few days before the fundraiser, success was not evident. But ticket sales picked up and tables had to be rearranged three times until sales were halted.
“That’s when I realized how big it was,” said Murat Uzundag.
The success of the fundraiser was a community effort. The Kiwanis Club of Glen Ridge donated the first check and provided support throughout the venture. Local Turkish restaurants provided, among other foods, chicken, gyro and manti, which is a Turkish beef dumpling.
“They’re hard to make and very small,” Uzun said.
All-in-all, the sit-down was a nine-course meal. Fitzgerald’s 1928 donated drinks; O’Boyle’s Landscaping donated, for the evening, ornamental plants. Two musical acts performed: Caner Tokgozol, who played an Ud, a fretless, stringed instrument, and Amir Vahab, a singer who was going to have surgery the day before the fundraiser, but changed his schedule to help. An auction included Turkish pottery, vases and a Turkish bath gift certificate.
Murat Uzundag said it was a blessing to see the community come together. Oz said ordinarily she does not like to ask people for help, but asking doesn’t hurt, especially when asking for other people. Yeliz Uzundag said hospitality is part of Turkish culture.
“We all picked not to be silent,” Mamak said. “We got out of our comfort zone.The first day we saw this mountain. But then we conquered the mountain.”
The funds, according to the organizers, will go to the Turkish Philanthropic Funds, NYC, and the Syrian-American Medical Society, Washington, D.C.