PARKERSBURG - A local state legislator traveled to Turkey in May as part of a cultural exchange to get an understanding of the Turkish people and the issues its culture faces.
Delegate John Ellem, R-Wood, was the only West Virginia legislator to be part of a group of lawmakers from West Virginia and Virginia invited by Mid-Atlantic Federation of Turkic American Associations to travel to Turkey for eight days. The exchange happened after Turkish officials came to the West Virginia Legislature and spent time visiting with lawmakers over a year ago. There was a state senator and delegate who took the trip last year and Ellem was the only one from West Virginia to go this year.
"It was a cultural dialogue type of exchange," Ellem said. MAFTAA "is not a government agency of Turkey, but its purpose is to bring together and help foster and develop more relationships between America and Turkey, including more understanding of Turkish culture."
Delegate John Ellem, R-Wood, and his wife, Sherry, during a recent trip to Turkey. The Ellems were part of a group made up of legislators from West Virginia and Virginia as part of a cultural exchange. The Ellems are at Cappadocia, an ancient area that has extensive ancient underground caverns.
Ellem and his wife, Sherry, paid for their own airline tickets to Turkey, as did the other seven legislators and one spouse from Virginia. Once there they had an itinerary that took them to Istanbul and several stops throughout the country.
"What you have over there is a mix of touring and learning about various cultural sites along with touring and engaging in some dialogue about business, education, government and so forth over there," Ellem said. "We toured several schools and a business district, including a tour of a candy factory."
They also got the chance to see Topkipi Palace, where the sultans originally resided, and toured the Hagia Sophia Museum. They also met with Mayor Adnan Kosker of Gebze, an industrial area in Turkey, and talked about business and the Turkish economy.
On two different evenings, they had dinner in people's homes with one in Istanbul and one in Izmir.
"They opened their home and hosted us for a dinner and discussion," Ellem said. "We talked about our various cultures."
Many people in Turkey own their own homes, but in many cases it is like a condominium in a building.
Near Izmir, they toured the Ephesus, an ancient city with ruins. They also toured the area known as Cappadocia, an ancient area that has extensive ancient underground caverns where people hid from their enemies. These caverns were built over a period of several hundred of years. They have what are called "fairy chimneys," rock formations that come up and have a mushroom like cap on them.
During its visit, the group was able to meet with a member of the Turkish parliament who served on its version of an energy committee.
"Turkey relies a lot on importing energy to meet its energy needs," Ellem said. "We actually made a prospective business contact with this member of parliament.
"Myself, being from a coal-producing state and one of the others was from the Richmond, Va., area and knows some of the people who run Alpha Natural Resources. Alpha has a lot of coal mines in West Virginia. We brought that up. We learned that Turkey was importing coal from China. The first thing we start thinking of was they should start importing coal from West Virginia.
"He sounded interested so I passed along his information to (West Virginia Department of Commerce executive director) Keith Burdette. Who knows, maybe we can get something going."
They went to Kayseri and toured a couple of schools and a hospital.
"We got to talk to one of the head physicians there about health care in Turkey and what were some of their issues compared to the issues we face in America," Ellem said. "They generally have universal health care over there, but it is getting very expensive for them.
"Their hospital system is broken up into two groups: The public hospitals and private hospitals where people pay for more insurance to cover what is done there or pay for it out of their own pocket."
They had the chance to talk with representatives from the Turkish media.
"We talked a lot about the political situations in Turkey, the various political parties and what they face with the Kurdish issues and what is going on in Syria," Ellem said.
One of the most interesting discussions for Ellem and the group was with an 18-year-old girl who was the daughter of one of their dinner hosts. The girl's father had a business installing movable soccer fields.
"It was interesting talking with this girl," Ellem said. "My wife spoke to her extensively. She was really interested in America."
Ellem said the young lady would like to visit America, but she was concerned about whether it was safe. She watches the news and sees stories about various crimes that occur in the states and had concerns.
In turn, when Ellem told people here he was going to be traveling to Turkey, people would tell him to be safe over there.
"People here associate Turkey with the Middle East, but really, it is at the cross roads between Europe and Asia," he said. "It was curious that people would tell me to be safe in going to Turkey and I am talking with this girl and she is asking us if it is safe to come to America."
They told her those things happen from time to time, but they are not representative of what goes on everyday in America.
Ellem said everyone they met were really friendly.
The group got to visit a mosque and church.
"Turkey is 98 percent Muslim, but it is secular," Ellem said. "You have 78 million people, but they are free to practice whatever religion they want there."
Ellem was surprised with how modern a country Turkey really is.
"Turkey is only one of the few growing economies there," he said. "They are the second largest growing economy in the world behind China and the 15th largest in the world."
People can have any number of misconceptions about another country.
"You never really appreciate what you have here or what it is like in other countries until you travel," Ellem said. "I would recommend international travel to anyone, especially with a culture like this. The U.S. and Turkey have pretty good relations, and I hope we continue to have good relations with them."
Ellem said they felt safe in Turkey the whole time they were there.
"Turkey is very important to the U.S. right now," he said. "It is the only stable country in that area right now with Greece's economic problems and having Iraq, Iran and Syria as part of their other borders. They are important being a stable democracy. All the people we met with are very interested in trade and developing their businesses. They want to be a first-world country."