For the February edition of our newsletter, we got to have a chat with Ashkan Teymour, one of the founding members of Istanbul&I. We discussed the early days of the organization and how it's evolved since then.
How would you introduce yourself to our readers?
My name is Teymour. I was born and raised here in the US, in DC. I grew up in an immigrant household. My parents are from Iran. I’ve always been a very curious and adventurous person. I’m an empath, so I really care about people and I would feel what they feel. I think when it comes to Istanbul&I, I would probably connect it to co-founding the organization. With 9 or 10 random people that don’t know each other, we all came up with the idea.
How did the idea for Istanbul&I come about?
It came out, originally, as a storytelling project. Right before Istanbul&I, I had just finished grad school. So, I was only 23 years old when I started Istanbul&I. I had a lot of experience with storytelling, including photojournalism. I had started a really cool project in the US that had been picked up by a lot of news outlets. That was Interviewing and understanding the stories of the campus staff and local community members of the university. So, when I came to Istanbul I was originally there for an internship/fellowship with the UNHCR for six months after grad school. I was meeting a lot of people through that work, because I was doing a lot of research at different NGOswith Syrians, as in Syrian response organizations, both legal and undocumented. It felt like there was a disconnection in terms of how we support one another and how these stories are shared. Istanbul has no lack of stories to share, even with people who transit through that city. But I didn’t really know anyone, just some people through work, not really people I’d start a project with. So, I just went on Facebook/Instagram, looked at student groups, trying to find people online who were interested in photojournalism and storytelling. I think I messaged a 100 people in a week. I sent each person a personalized message: “Hey, you don’t know me, I don’t know you, but this is my background. I really want to start this storytelling project. Do you wanna meet me at Starbucks or at a cafe and talk about it?” And one by one, I met with them. About 20 of them responded. In the US, they wouldn’t do that. But in Turkey, I’ve had more luck. These young people had diverse backgrounds, either they are studying in university or they’re working. They met me one by one in a week and we talked. I decided there were 10 or 11 people who were good to do the project with, so I invited them to my home. I had a lobby in my apartment in Kadıköy. “Come here, we will do an evening brainstorming and get to know each other.” And they came! Every single person I invited came and each person brought a friend or something, so it actually became like 20 people. I got us some food. We sat around in a circle of chairs and had a discussion about how this would go. At that meeting we came up with the committees, we came up with the name of Istanbul&I, our objectives, and also a launch event; our launch event party to launch the page.
Any fun memories from the founding days of the organization?
It was the fact that we had no space of our own, so we had to keep finding places to meet. Like coffee shops. And there would be 10-15 of us, and these coffee shop owners were like “What are you guys doing here? Who are you guys?” Because of that, we had to keep changing our location. It was just funny, the looks we'd get. This showed our resilience and our resourcefulness. It led to Istanbul&I’s ability to be everywhere. So even when we eventually had our own space, it taught us the importance of actually being in our communities and wanting to help. I remember one NGO that was a women’s NGO and they let us use their space for a couple of weeks, later on, we used malls, and cafes.
Our first Iftar community event was really fun. The first time we held it, it was in Tarlabaşı, and I remember walking with our volunteers to find a place to distribute food from. We were just asking randomly. One guy had this spot, a butchery! A place where he killed his goats! There was blood everywhere, it was gross, but we had no other place. This is the only place we could go. So, we spent the day before washing and cleaning it. I guess he was getting free service out of us! All of us were washing and scrubbing this butcher shop. And then we used the first evening for Iftar to get food out to people. We had hundreds of people in line outside, it was beautiful. Because they noticed us giving out food. The next day we walked around Tarlabaşı and found a park called Sururi Park, and the police officer there let us set up tables and everything there. It was really beautiful. Those events at that park were some of my fondest memories. We had people, community members playing games, coming together, giving food, and it got more and more comprehensive and professional.
What do you think about the current direction of Istanbul&I?
I like the improvements in communications. Newsletters are something that I appreciate and I think it’s good for your alumni, your donors, and community members. I think what I would like to see, is organizing more of your own volunteering programs. I think you’re supporting other ones, which is important, but organizing your own and using the space for that. I’ll tell you, we were extremely ambitious when we started. We organized two or three confrences. We started a tutoring program for Afghan and Iranian teenagers that were homeless and had come in as homeless refugees with no home and no parents in Turkey. We didn’t have a space. I think there is a risk-averse attitude and I think it’s ok to be bolder and be bigger. Because I think it’s a great way to bring people in. I think it’s something we really did a lot of in the beginning.
Where would you want to see it go in the future?
More volunteer programming. As you increase the supply of volunteers, you need to also have a demand there, It’s basic economics. So you need to create more volunteer programs to get more volunteers and vice versa. I think just more volunteer programs that people can start. So, make it easy for them to start one and be more consistent about it.
Secondly, my dream was to expand Istanbul&I to different cities. So, each city would have a chapter or franchise. So that was a dream, but It didn’t happen, maybe one day it’ll happen. But I see the model working really well in other places too. We almost got Berlin&I and Beirut&I off the ground, but they needed more support that we were unable to give.
Any departing words of wisdom for our readers?
I think two things that I’ve learned since after starting Istanbul&I, especially in terms of entrepreneurship and being creative, is to not be afraid but to be bold and take risks. That’s one. And don’t forget who you’re serving. Who are you trying to help here? Sometimes we lose track of that and that should be always the focus of what we do. Don’t forget who we’re trying to help.