The Fruits of Homesickness

This article originally appeared in the fall 2019 issue of STILLPOINT magazine

On the North Shore of Boston, there are sunflowers on professors’ desks, college students bonding with older generations over a vegetable frittata, and fresh green beans on the plates of college students and homeless people alike—all because Saliha Grace Shelton ’20 first asked herself the question: What do I miss about my home country of Turkey?

Before she was adopted at age 12, Saliha Grace Shelton spent many of her formative years on a small, rural farm in southeast Turkey. There, she enjoyed the company of 300 sheep, a motley crew of other farm animals and a garden with every fruit and vegetable under the sun. But, as one of the 15 million Kurdish people in Turkey, she was an ethnic minority living in a country that made it illegal for her to use her given name (Solhe ŞekiráPahom), speak her native language or get a formal education.

“They don’t want us to get an education. If we were educated, we would demand some rights,” says Shelton.

Because surrounding countries fear that Kurdish people will, one day, make Kurdistan a real country—taking pieces of Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria with it—these governments do everything in their power to impose upon the Kurdish people an illusion of powerlessness. But it’s not working.

In recent years, says Shelton, the Kurdish people have received international recognition for their role in capturing Saddam Hussein and key al Qaeda figures (including Osama bin Laden’s messenger, Hassan Ghul), for their all-female unit of Peshmerga freedom fighters and for being the most successful military group to fight ISIS.

This illusion of powerlessness is lost on Shelton, too. Even though the Turkish government did its best to squash her sense of personal agency, this 21-year-old has more joy and willpower than most people who’ve reveled in freedom their entire lives.

In the three years Shelton has been at Gordon, she’s taken it upon herself to coordinate and raise money for a series of intergenerational cooking classes and to revive and rename the College’s community garden, Newroz (which means “new day, new sun” in Kurdish)—all so that the Gordon community can enjoy the experiences from Turkey she misses most. By paying attention to what she wanted to hold onto, she also discovered what she wanted to give to others. So, she gave people a reason to be in the garden.

Today, the Biology Department uses Newroz for their Crops and Society class and summer research projects. The Physics Club is putting in a rainwater irrigation system, and there’s been talk of the Art Department painting a mural on the garden shed.

A language that has been banned elsewhere has been given new life here through a single word, and is now spoken freely by Shelton and all who come to Newroz.

While her original question (What do I miss about Turkey?) stemmed from real homesickness and helped Shelton find her place in a new country, it also spoke to an even deeper form of homesickness—for a perfect world.

Like Kurdish people living in a country that is, for the most part, brutally inhospitable to them, all people find themselves in a world that can feed into this illusion of powerlessness. Shelton’s example serves as a reminder that an illusion doesn’t have any feet to stand on and that personal agency comes from and is found in God.

“I don’t give up easily,” says Shelton. “I think my whole experience taught me not to be afraid of things. Failure doesn’t stop me from pursuing what I want. I just go for it. Because I’ve already lost a lot in my life and in my family, I’ve said to myself, ‘What have I got to lose? Just do it. It’s all thanks to Jesus. He is in control.’”