The Turkish American Society of Wisconsin (TASWI) hosted a Turkish Festival with food, live music, dance, and entertainment on July 21.

The event was also very family focused, with pony rides, henna tattoos, face painting, and a bounce house. All proceeds will go to Embrace Relief. The nonprofit organization brings together volunteers to collaborate on humanitarian aid and disaster relief efforts, including hunger relief, education, women’s empowerment, and refugee relief. There are 65 million people worldwide who have been forcibly displaced.

Serdar Bozdag, the floor manager and a volunteer for the Turkish Festival, has seen how important the event has become and considers it a success after just two years.

“Initially the inspiration came from the ladies in our community. They suggested doing some fundraising event, like a bake sale,” Bozdag said. “And they had the idea to put it together and have the event in two weeks.”

Bozdag recognized that there would not be enough time to promote it effectively, and the original idea was not something that was unique. As a first-time experience for all of community members and volunteers, they came up with the idea of starting a Turkish festival within the next month. He attributed the success of the festival to an organized and dedicated Turkish community.

“Everyone was smiling, everyone was happy. They contributed something, and they knew the following year it needed to be bigger and better,” said Bozdag, recalling the situation after the first Turkish Festival. “The purpose of the festival was not to promote Turkish culture or Turkish food directly. We are using the festival as a way to get residents from all over to come and get to know us better. Our main goal is that people from different backgrounds sit around the same table, be at the same place together, and interact with each other.”

The Turkish Festival organizers invited Bosnian American, and Uzbek American folk dancers and musicians to participate along with the many Turkish vendors. They also advertised and marketed the event to reach the diverse communities of Milwaukee.

“Even though Milwaukee is one of the most segregated city in the nation, and there is a big polarization in the states and in the world, we are all very similar and have a lot of commonalities,” said Bozdag. “The hope for these programs is to let people meet and experience each other. Usually people are afraid of what they do not know.”

Bozdag believes prejudices will start to evaporate through efforts like the Turkish Festival. Just like last year, he saw people happy and smiling during the festival, and that had a positive impact on the local community.

The event is organized by volunteers who hold other full-time positions around the area, such as being business leaders and students. Bozdag is a tenure track Assistant Professor of Computer Science at Marquette University. But what brings them all together to dedicate their time and passion to the project is their commitment to create a space of dialogue, diversity, and openness.

The Turkish Festival not only provided a cultural exchange for individuals looking for Turkish culture and cuisine for a day, but it also provided a platform for individuals to educate themselves about “the other” and “the unknown.” The twofold impact of the festival is important in today’s polarized society, and organizers want to continue to build cultural bridges of understanding and reduce prejudices in Milwaukee.

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Wisconsin Muslim Journal