(Photo by Sabrina Vourvoulias)
Semra Filikçi loves Wissahickon Park.
The 29-year-old and her husband Bilal Altundas, 28, used to live in an apartment close to the park and they spent many a weekend exploring it. It was only one of many things and ways Filikçi has learned by doing while she’s lived in Philadelphia.
“My husband and I got married in Turkey. We immediately moved to Philadelphia together one year ago because my husband was continuing his PhD,” Filikçi said. “So we really built our first home together here in Philadelphia and it has been a good place for me so far.”
But it hasn’t exactly been easy.
Filikçi grew up in rural Turkey, in the district of Konya. After taking her university entry exam, she studied chemistry, completed her four-year degree, then started on her master’s degree. “I found a job, before finishing my master’s, at an aluminum manufacturing factory in the quality control department,” she said. “At the same time, I was the assistant manager of quality assurance. I was living close to my family, who were about two hours away, and had excellent roommates.”
Altundas, for his part, lived in the province of Erzurum until the age of 5, then moved with his family to the US and went to school in Florida and Massachussetts until high school. They met and married in Turkey, and when they decided to come to Philadelphia so Altundas could complete his chemistry doctorate at Drexel University, he spoke English, she did not.
Moreover, her visa allows her to live here with her husband because of his studies, but it doesn’t allow her to work. That was a big change for the young professional.
“When I first came here,” she said, “I didn’t know anybody except my husband. I was really dependent on him for everything, but a flyer at a coffee shop we went to advertised free ESL classes and from then on everything changed. I started to meet new people, broke out of my shell and learned about the Welcoming Center for New Pennsylvanians and the rest is history… [Even] while knowing very little English I accepted to be a part of the Immigrant Leadership Institute even though at the time it was very scary for me.”
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As part of the Immigrant Leadership Institute, Filikçi co-organized a program in June which examined the social isolation immigrants often experience.
“I know a lot of people who came to the USA for several reasons,” Filikçi said. “Some people who come to the USA to work and send money back home or others who come here with their family and try to build a new life here. We realized that each of us live unaware of each other. Everyone faces some kind of hardship whether it is loneliness, culture shock or homesickness — but it can all be bundled under social isolation.”
Filikçi added, “the aim of our event was to become aware of each other and share the various hardships of social separation several of us faced. This is why during our event we split into two groups to discuss some of the problems and how we combatted them.”
Filikçi’s personal approach to fighting the social isolation of the immigrant has been multipronged. There’s the social milieu her leadership institute role provides, but there’s also her resolution to make her new life work.
“Persistence is key to establishing a new life in a new country. There are plenty of opportunities in Philadelphia for newcomers and I think doing a little research goes a very long way in getting to know the area and meeting people,” she said. “One of the major problems is probably not knowing fluent English but by searching for free classes I got to know about other programs and this helped me avoid social isolation, in a way. I think that not giving up and constantly trying to find new things to fill my days and weeks here led me to expanding my horizons.”
“I would recommend just forcing yourself to do things to break out of your comfort zone,” she added. “I consider myself a determined person. I really like to take up tasks and complete them to the fullest. This is my first time living outside of Turkey and although it was a little scary living in a new country at first, I like to take on new challenges.”
In all likelihood the couple will leave when Altundas completes his doctorate, so that Filikçi can take her turn with post-secondary studies. “I also want to continue my education as the time is passing and I don’t want to wait until it’s too late,” she said. “My dream is to become a professor some day and teach at the college level. My husband, father-in-law and my father have always supported me in this regard.”
But until the couple moves from Philadelphia, Filikçi will continue doing what she’s always done while living here: “[I’ll] look for new things to try and new programs to attend,” she said.
And now, thanks to her year of living resolutely, she knows “lots of people in similar circumstances like me, and have made really good friends.”-30-
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