Traditionally speaking, the reporter wanders the perimeters of an event, then dashes in to get the scoop with a key subject, a quote or two and maybe a photo. Then it’s back to the sidelines to scout out the next newsworthy moment.
There were certainly a lot of traditions being observed at the Ramadan Iftar dinner at Fairfax County Government Center on May 31, organized by the American Turkish Friendship Association (ATFA) and hosted by Board of Supervisors Chairman Sharon Bulova — but the reporter as pure observer was not one of them.
Instead, demonstrating the spirit of friendship that ATFA seeks to promote, this reporter was “adopted” for the event by the Kilic family of Vienna — father Erdal, mother Emine, daughter Yasemin, and son Cemal, who have been in the country since 2015. While the actual assignment was attended to, with interviews, photographs and hasty scribbling of highlights from speeches, in between it all, however, Ermine kept urging “come, sit down with us, eat” as she pointed to the plate she had put together for the new “family member.”
THE EVENING marked the third time that Fairfax County officials have hosted the joint community outreach. The Iftar is the evening meal when Muslims end their daily fast at sundown during the holy month of Ramadan. After a brief introduction and some insight into the meaning of Ramadan by Zeynap Cakmak of Clifton, Bulova welcomed the hundred-or-so attendees, comprising all ages, ethnicities, and religious beliefs.
Citing “our diversity as the greatest asset in Fairfax County and what truly makes us special,” Bulova said it was “appropriate” to host the dinner at the Government Center. “This is the gathering place for our community and we welcome all of our neighbors here.”
Iman Mehmet Ayaz of the Institute of Islamic-Turkish Studies in Fairfax, thanked Bulova and the county for “making us feel included. These days it is extra meaningful to be welcomed and made comfortable, here at the center of our government.” Ayaz added that having such a diverse group at the Iftar dinner reflected the “true spirit of Ramadan.”
In addition to the chairman, representatives from all branches of county law enforcement and safety agencies and other departments were on hand to show their neighborly support. Supervisor John Foust (D-Dranesville) was also in attendance, as were Del. Vivian Watts (D-39), Del. Mark Sickles (D-43), and deputy county executive for public safety, David Rohrer.
Watts, who was hosted by a local family during a 2008 visit to Turkey, said it was “so sad what is happening in that extraordinary place.” With the tensions and unrest in their native country, and the spike in anti-Muslim sentiment that many Turkish immigrants have faced in their new homeland, Watts is saddened that many “must feel like no place is home. That’s why it is all the more important to be here as part of the bridge to connect people.”
Mustafa Akpinar, CEO of the Rumi Forum and an organizer of the event, agreed that of late “it seems like we are all on double shifts on our mission to be part of the community, but we love diversity and we celebrate it.”
Back to the Kilic table, where Emine carefully described each of the delicacies that she had picked out for my enjoyment, while still telling me that she, too, worries about the state of affairs in Turkey. “But we are so glad to be here, where things are so possible.”
Cemal, a smiling and anything-but-shy 11-year-old, was happy to talk about a wide range of subjects; why we are gathered here — “to better learn to communicate with each other” to cars — “Sorry, I am more for Lamborghini than Ferrari.”
Yasemin spent her first year here studying primarily in Turkish while she perfected her English — which seemed pretty perfect already. The 16-year-old student at Oakton High School is exploring the paths her future might hold. “I like math, for sure, but lately I am thinking about politics, or the law, something that I can do to help everyone have a better life.” She also loves to write — “I am working on a book” — so journalism is also a possibility.
ALL AROUND US, people were talking, laughing, and just getting to know each other a little better. The Imam’s call to prayers after the meal was the only pause. The gathering continued for many, once everyone had come back together.
Time to go and actually write the story, despite pleas from Emine, Yasemin and Cemal (dad Erdal was off meeting and mingling with other groups) to stay a bit longer and chat. Duty calls, but not before receiving an invitation to attend a Turkish cooking class with Emine and a class in Ebru, the traditional Turkish “marbling” art form with Yasemin.
No regrets on breaking with journalistic tradition on this one occasion, and learning some new ones with a room full of neighbors.