DemoSapiens: Freedom Under Threat

This past Thursday, HasNa hosted the third gathering in our DemoSapiens discussion series, co-hosted with MetaCulture. DemoSapiens comes from the Greek demos, meaning “people” and sapiens, meaning “wise,” because the series is designed to allow us to learn from one another’s wisdom. This third episode really leaned into that intention; there was no presentation and the entirety of the evening was spent in passionate discussion.

We were lucky enough to have participants from a wide range of backgrounds and at significantly different points in their professional careers. The diversity of viewpoints present meant that the conversation was always lively.

The central question of the evening was what does it mean to have freedom and where does it come from. Ultimately, a useful distinction was developed between conceptual freedom and freedom in practice. The US Constitution was discussed as a useful example of a document whose original definition of freedom has been continually reinterpreted over the generations in order to be more inclusive. 

Another highly topical subject that generated many different opinions was free speech. The conversation centered on how to determine what kinds of speech should be regulated by the government. How do we decide what kind of speech is sufficiently harmful to deserve banning? Obviously, cultural context is one of the most important factors in this discussion. It was suggested that different groups within a society should try to come through a consensus through dialogue as to what they want the government to regulate. Essentially, freedom of speech must be exercised in order to decide the limits of that very same freedom. However, the problem there is how those sorts of dialogues should be facilitated. There was also some skepticism expressed of how effective dialogue can be in the long run.

The disagreement around the value of dialogue as a way to determine governmental actions was tied to a larger debate over whether democracy is or ought to be developed and run from the top down or from the bottom up. The founding of many democratic nations — such as the US and India, to give two vastly different examples — was led by elites who crafted and imposed their version of a good government on the majority. However, democracy at its core is about rule by the people, for the people. There is a clear unresolved tension there.

The evening closed with a discussion of whether the meaning of freedom changes in different cultural contexts. Although it is of course an oversimplification to divide the world’s countries into two camps, there can be a broad and imperfect distinction made between collectivist and individualistic cultures. In collectivist cultures, freedom may not be valued as highly. Should it be? Who has the right to make that call? This moral puzzle is further complicated by the privilege, economic and otherwise, that makes it possible to even debate questions about freedom. Who gets to talk about these things? Why do they have the space to consider these the most urgent problems?

It was a fascinating conversation that brought up many complicated ethical questions. Thank you to all the participants for their expertise and their passion. If you missed it, you can see the video here. We are so excited to continue exploring more complex issues through DemoSapiens, and we hope to see you there!

This article was contributed by Zeena Mubarak, intern at HasNa, Inc.

Meeting with UCI’s Olive Tree Initiative

Rukmini Banerjee in conversation with students from the University of California, Irvine

The Olive Tree Initiative is a university-based organization whose mission is to promote conflict analysis and resolution through rigorous academic preparation, experiential education and leadership development. OTI provides students, faculty and community participants with the education, training and experiences needed to better understand, negotiate, and resolve conflicts.

On Friday, August 17, 2018 HasNa hosted 10 students from the University of California, Irvine’s Olive Tree Initiative, along with Dr. Daniel Wehrenfennig, the Director of the program. On their way back to California from their study tour to Turkey and Armenia, the group of students stopped in New York, DC, and Boston, to meet with scholars, practitioners, and nonprofits engaged in peacebuilding, foreign policy, and conflict management in Turkey and Armenia.

Rukmini Banerjee, President of HasNa, gave the students an overview of HasNa’s model and past projects implemented in Turkey and Armenia, such as Crafting Peace (2012), Side by Side: Digital Stories (2013), and Volunteer Initiative in Turkey and Armenia (VITA: 2013-14). The students posed several questions regarding the challenges faced in the field, any push back received from families on either side of the border, and also the overall feedback on the projects. The students and Dr. Wehrenfennig also presented interesting insights into the challenges faced in their personal reasons for joining the Olive Tree Initiative. Rukmini also talked about HasNa’s experiences working with Turkish and Armenian diaspora in the US.

The conversation ended with an examination of the current political climate and US-Turkish relations, memory and memorialization, and a stronger resolve to continue working at the grassroots level to create positive, micro-level change.

From Liability to Asset: Realizing Turkey’s Potential

Dr. Aykan Erdemir (left), Dr. Pelin Eralp Wolak (center), Mr. Cenk Sidar (right). Photograph by Jessica Sidar.

On Thursday, May 11, 2017 HasNa Inc. hosted a panel discussion titled From Liability to Asset: Realizing Turkey’s Potential. This panel discussion sought to explore the ways in which Turkey could play a pivotal role in middle-eastern politics by expanding its political and economic horizons, and also through a smarter and stronger transatlantic engagement. Our guest speakers were Dr. Aykan Erdemir, senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies and former member of the Turkish parliament, and Mr. Cenk Sidar, a global risk executive with a vast experience in assisting top financial institutions, multinational corporations, risk management firms, and legal firms operating in high-risk regions. The panel was moderated by Dr. Pelin Eralp Wolak, Senior Program Manager at HasNa Inc.

The political and economic perspectives of the discussion were presented by Dr. Erdemir and Mr. Sidar respectively. Dr. Erdemir started the discussion by highlighting the main challenge for Turkey: how do we make the transition from this obsession with strong rulers to good governance and strong institutions? Law and order is often a result of inclusive and effective institutions, transparency and accountability. The most important lesson that we have learned from the current political situation in Turkey and indeed from many countries of the world, is that building strong institutions takes a lot of time, but destroying existing institutions does not take much effort or resources. Closing with the upcoming meeting between Presidents Erdogan and Trump on May 16, Dr. Erdemir emphasized the need for a principled engagement as opposed to appeasement between USA and Turkey.

Presenting the economic angle, Mr. Sidar started by describing Turkey’s position on the edge of a major economic crisis, with a high, unsustainable private sector debt that has been accruing for the last 5-6 years. If public debt is high, IMF can step in and inject some cash, thereby resolving the crisis temporarily. But the high private sector debt cannot be resolved by injecting cash. Inflation has reached 11% while economic growth is only 2% — a significantly low and dangerous growth rate for an emerging market with high increase in population. Sustainable, long-term growth is required to create economic stability. Historically, an economic crisis has always led to a change in government in Turkey. The younger people of the country voted in line with democratic principles, and 60% of the country’s population is below 35 years of age. According to Mr. Sidar, if Turkey’s economic condition is reversible, that reversal can be gradually accomplished by the youth of the country.

The session ended with a lively Q&A segment where the audience asked interesting questions about inclusivity and proposed action plans.

Please subscribe to HasNa’s Facebook page in order to view the video recording of the entire event.

Hamzah Jamjoom: The Ego

On January 9, Busboys and Poets (Takoma) hosted a conversation between the Saudi filmmaker Hamzah Jamjoom and John Hanshaw, Founder of the Washington Film Institute. Born in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, Hamzah Jamjoom is a writer, director, and actor currently based in Chicago. From a young age, Hamzah exposed himself to the art of storytelling and decided to study computer graphics animation. His first big break was the successful IMAX feature film titled Arabia 3D, where he was part of both the cast and the crew. As he began to acquire some recognition for his work through short films and music videos, he decided to use his position as a filmmaker and storyteller from the Arabic world, to subvert existing narratives surrounding the Middle East and the Islamic world and explore the various conflicts faced by the artist’s “ego”.

The main topic of last evening’s conversation was the artist’s ego, and the tendency of the artist to always want to present the best version of himself. Jamjoom explores the human ego through his more recent and upcoming artistic endeavors, particularly a sci-fi series on religion and the ego titled ‘Balance’ that he recently completed. He tackled a variety on questions from the audience towards the end of the conversation. These questions ranged from his own religious views to his experience working with Maher Zain, one of the most popular contemporary musicians of the Islamic world, who has previously worked with American pop artists such as Britney Spears and Lady Gaga.  At a time when most of society is deeply polarized along religious and political lines, artists such as Hamzah Jamjoom are making a huge contribution towards achieving some sort of understanding and stability by portraying various religious and cultural backgrounds through alternative discourses that challenge negative stereotypes.

In order to cultivate empathy and cross-cultural understanding, it is of vital importance to continue engaging in dialogue with people holding religious and political views that are very different from our own.

Interested in a scholarship for a Master’s degree in Business Administration at BAU International University in Washington, DC?

BAU International University (BAUI) is offering scholarships to three students referred by HasNa. If you are finishing your undergraduate studies or have recently graduated from college, you might be eligible to apply for a scholarship at BAU International University in Washington, D.C. HasNa can recommend three students per academic year for BAUI’s EMBA program, which has concentrations in Entrepreneurship, Global Affairs, and International Law and Economics. All you need to do is contact HasNa, and we will tell you the requirements for receiving a recommendation letter from HasNa.


You may contact us via phone or email.

Phone: 202-223-1777


The Power of Storytelling


On May 21, 2015, HasNa screened Hüseyin Karabey’s 2014 Turkish film, “Come to My Voice,” at the Avalon Theater in Washington, DC. It is a simple enough premise, but powerful in its ability to bring to light the realities of a typical Kurdish village’s unfortunate interactions with police through a storyline that seems at once natural and mythical. The stories within stories, local music, and tranquil mountainous landscapes are woven into the sad realities facing the villagers. Many elements struck me and will continue to linger in my mind, from the grandmother who, through her actions, teaches her granddaughter strength, courage, discretion, and kindness, to the respect and compassion with which the men and women of the village treat each other. In sharp contrast is the way in which the protagonists are barely treated as citizens within their own homeland, subjected to checkpoints and humiliation. Beyond the typical suspicion and threatening aggression in such scenarios, the reality of cultural oppression is also manifested when the officers make condescending remarks about the villagers’ Kurdish dialect, insisting that they speak in Turkish.

Karabey – both the director and writer – subtly adds complexity to characters in an absurd situation. The villagers in poverty, accused of harboring weapons, are forced to find guns they had never before sought in order to free some of their men from jail. As in any case of human interaction during any given conflict, across all time and space, there will always be a variety of individual behaviors. Of the dominant group asserting its power, some will play along and simply follow orders, others will abuse the system and use it for personal gain, and still others will follow their conscience and show compassion toward the oppressed. Because we see examples of all three behaviors, the film manages to show the humanity in soldiers who find themselves pressured to participate in oppression through a depiction of the system as the root problem, not any one group.

Through personalizing and storytelling, films and media have the power to both raise awareness and change perspectives. The Harmony Institute, a research center that studies the impact of media on individuals and society, acknowledges that impact could take many forms and is often difficult to measure. Nevertheless, the Institute’s studies have shown that character attachment creates a strong emotional experience, and that can make a story an effective means to contributing to social change.

Jonathan Gottschall, Ph.D., explores a unique theoretical perspective of the purpose and impact of storytelling: being able to relate to fictional characters can influence a given attitude more than typical factors such as one’s background and beliefs1,2. This is due to forming judgments about the characters in the same way as we would real people, which then ends up impacting generalizations on those groups or issues. Hence, in the case of Karabey’s film, anyone can relate to the bond between the grandmother and granddaughter and their determination to bring back their missing family member. Gottschall argues that the proliferation of American TV shows and films with likeable characters seems to be a large factor in drastic shifts in American public opinion regarding various groups. Gottschall even believes that fictional characters may effect social change as strongly as direct political action, and certainly more so than nonfiction, when people keep their critical guards up against something clearly meant to persuade them.

As for the film, one turn of events, in particular, really moved me. When the granddaughter decides to take matters into her own hands in order to save another man in the family from danger, a powerful message of love and sacrifice arises. The message is all the more potent and tangible through the tacit understanding between the granddaughter and grandmother that they must take this risk. I can imagine that, whether one has heard nothing of Kurdish people, or only negative depictions, this part of the film would be moving and memorable.

In this ever more interconnected, globalized world, the power of storytelling can help us make sense of news, empathize with people from other cultures, and put a human face on issues to which we would otherwise have trouble relating. It can also make us re-evaluate issues that are familiar to us. Along the same lines, HasNa, through coordinating projects between conflicting communities in Turkey, Cyprus, and Armenia, puts a human face on neglected and misunderstood regions. HasNa’s focus on relatable human needs and desires – from agriculture and business to youth and female empowerment – is what leads to inspired members, progress, and peacebuilding. The impact of individual stories through collaboration is as noteworthy as the impact of the film’s stories, as evidenced by its People’s Choice Award at the Istanbul International Film Festival. There is hope that people everywhere are open to re-shaping their long-held views of socially and economically excluded populations.

HasNa is open to future screenings of this film. Please contact us if you would like to get involved in organizing an event.


[1] Gottschall, J. (2012) The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

[2] Gottschall, J. (2012, Jun 20). The Power of Fake Gay (and Black) Friends [Web log post]. Retrieved May 29, 2015, from


This blog post was contributed by Michelle “Zephyr” Williams, who is currently an intern at HasNa Inc.

Responding to the Ozgecan Aslan Tragedy: HasNa’s story on the fight against Gender-based Violence


Image Source: Burhan Ozbilici/Associated Press

Does peace-building happen only between nations or cultures, or is the concept more all-encompassing than that? Can peace-building happen between genders?

Last week Ozgecan Aslan, a Turkish student, was murdered for resisting rape while taking public transportation. This devastating story is not unique to Turkey. It is reminiscent of the 2012 brutal rape and murder of Jyoti in New Delhi, or the Isla Vista killings in California that sparked the #yesallwomen conversation. Now, in Turkey, protesters are calling for their leaders to do more to protect women from gender-based violence (GBV). The Financial Times quoted Deniz Bayram, a lawyer who works with the feminist organization, Mor Cati, as saying, “Every woman thinks that it could have been her in the minibus instead of Ozgecan.” And this certainly rings true for many of us.

Reading about Ozgecan reminded me of a scary encounter I had while taking public transportation in Istanbul. A man followed me incessantly as I disembarked from the tram, until I ran into a pharmacy and asked for the employee to call the police. Sharing this story at work, I discovered that others had similar stories of being targeted by men in transit systems—from DC’s Metro to Nairobi’s busses. I could have been Ozgecan. You could have been Ozgecan. Violence against women permeates not only Turkish culture, but global culture, and it is going to take both genders working together to stop it.

As an intern at HasNa, a non-profit that builds peace through development activities in Turkey, Armenia and Cyprus, I’ve learned about the laws that are in place to protect women in Turkey. Like many nation’s laws and even global compacts, these attempts don’t always translate into action. The past decade has seen a dramatic rise in the cases of violence against women. In fact, a 2009 Human Rights Watch study that found that 42% of Turkish woman are subject to domestic violence at some point in their lifetime, and only 8% seek legal help against it. While communities with a population larger than 50,000 are required by law to have a women’s shelter, NGOs lack the resources to serve victims of GBV.

For this reason, HasNa initiated Project SHINE (Self Help through New Exchanges) to empower NGOs working to end GBV and enhance their capacity to serve Turkey’s women. What is more interesting is that the participants of Project SHINE are both male and female leaders.  Engaging men in the fight against GBV is extremely important. Increasingly, international organizations are calling for men to step up and speak out: HeforShe, Men Can Stop Rape, and The White Ribbon Campaign, to name a few. If we want to build peace between the genders, we cannot only engage a single gender in the dialogue!

The tragic death of Ozgecan has reminded us of how important this project is for the region and the world. Women in Turkey need our solidarity, and we hope that you will partner with us through supporting Project SHINE to fight GBV in Turkey and help ensure the rights of women. You can find out more information on this project and our other work in the region on our website. You can also support Project SHINE directly through our Trevolta campaign. Together, we can stop violence against women.


This blog post was contributed by Nichole Saad, who is currently an intern at HasNa Inc.

HasNa’s 2014 Eco-Journalism Workshop – Highlighting the bi-communal importance of eco-awareness in journalism


As the third follow-up initiative held by HasNa alumni from the Collaborative Solutions program, an eco-journalism workshop took place for Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot undergraduate journalism students in Cyprus this November.

Students learned of the importance of collaboration between the two communities, highlighting a communal duty to protect the environment as well as protect what unites both Turkish Cypriots and Greek Cypriots. The students were divided into three groups, each directed by a professional eco-journalist and went on field excursions to study three areas of great importance to Cyprus, including Paralimni Lake, Achnas, and Lake Orklini.

Following the excursions, students prepared press releases about the program. See the following link to an article written by one of the students about the program. There are language links at the top of the article to select your language choice. The article is available in English, Greek, and Turkish.


Water: The Principal Resource for Humanity

water engineers

Water is essential for human life and the depletion of clean water resources is a serious global threat. According to the International Water Management Institute, one third of the global population does not have access to clean drinking water and another 1.5 billion people live in areas experiencing water scarcity. Some scientists argue that within two decades more than half of the world population will face water-based vulnerability. To avoid a global water crisis, we all need to act immediately and find ways to use water more efficiently.

In order to address the global water challenges, particularly in the developing world, the Global Environment and Technology Foundation along with its partners which include the US Department of State have formed the US Water Partnership (USWP) in 2011. As its name indicates, USWP is a US based public-private partnership that includes a wide array of public agencies and private institutions. The main functions of the USWP are to provide access to information on water issues and to give technical assistance to domestic and/or international organizations that aim to solve water challenges around the globe. As our past training programs for Turkish water engineers indicate, HasNa has been focusing on improving water management and irrigation methods in southeastern Turkey since 2000. Thus, it is only natural that we reached out to USWP to help us with our upcoming training program in 2015 for water union association chairmen coming from southeastern Turkey.

The Southeastern Anatolia Project (GAP), which is one of the most ambitious and expensive regional development projects in the world, has so far constructed 12 dams out of the 22 planned to be built in the basins of Tigris and Euphrates. By utilizing the waters of these two major rivers, this integrated regional development project seeks to improve not only agriculture and irrigation in the region but also aims to provide hydroelectric power and better infrastructure for economic development. Since this expensive project revolves around using water as the key resource, it is essential for the region’s population ranging from farmers, agricultural experts and local government officials to water engineers to understand how to use water efficiently not wastefully. Water Union Associations (WUAs) which are doing bulk of the work in terms of advising farmers on irrigation issues were the main targets of HasNa’s training programs between 2000 and 2005. After five consecutive years of working with the WUAs in southeastern Turkey, HasNa has established a respectable alumni network of engineers and water experts in the region. Continuing demands for additional training on irrigation and water management in the region have prompted us to bring a new group of WUA chairmen to the United States for training. We are planning to cooperate with the US Water Partnership and benefit from their expertise for this upcoming training. As the humanitarian crisis in the neighborhood surrounding southeastern Turkey worsens, it is becoming even more critical to use water carefully and efficiently. Depletion of water resources due to mismanagement will only make the socio-economic situation more daunting in the Middle East.

If you want to learn more about water’s many uses and the global water challenges we are facing, you can access the H2infO on the US Water Partnership’s website:

The Art of Building Peace

Bi-communal art Cyprus

In his meditative essay on ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ (1936), Walter Benjamin spoke of the decay or withering of the aura of art that comes with mass reproduction through photography and printing. As the importance of art pour l’art or ‘art for art’s sake’ decreases with the advent of modernity, mechanical reproduction of art is used for propaganda, and political messaging. Thus, in reaction to the gradual aestheticization of politics, Benjamin called for politicization of the arts. Since then, art is often perceived as being greater than merely a reflection of society. It goes one step ahead; not only does it make a comment on society, but it chooses to take a stand. The personal becomes political.

In Cyprus, art has been a little more than just a creative or aesthetic product; it has frequently been used to communicate a message to the public. According to Daniella Gold, ‘artists have used their work to bring together two communities through sharing common cultural experiences, rehumanizing the other community, and engaging individuals in atypical ways. Bi-communal art activities have helped to foster interaction between the two communities and facilitate reconciliation. Though the visual arts are by no means the only creative method that should be used to aid peacebuilding, the arts have played a significant role in increasing understanding between warring groups and facilitating interaction’ (The Art of Building Peace: How the Visual Arts Aid Peace-building Initiatives in Cyprus, 2006).

Buffer Fringe held its first bi-communal performance art initiative in Cyprus on October 18-19 of this year, on the Buffer Zone. Fifteen fringe performances from across the island were presented outdoors during this two-day event. The UN buffer zone at Lefkoşa was transformed into an open air stage, where the performances were held to celebrate art, fresh ideas, and free thinking. From 6 PM each evening, the audience enjoyed live performances that encompassed theater, art, and dance. The performances were presented in English, Turkish, and Greek. Highlights of the festival included English stage adaptations of The Princess and the Pea and Miss Margarida’s Way, and also a Turkish and Greek play called Çanta / Τσάντα / Bag.

The idea of adopting “atypical” or unconventional ways of building peace resonates closely with HasNa’s mission. Our programs have often been guided by the urge to identify a problem, come up with a creative way to solve that problem, and then pull in our skills and resources to implement that solution; or at least empower others to implement solutions of their own. Our bi-communal activities in Cyprus span across a number of topics including the environment, journalism, radio shows, and exchange programs. So far, we have been able to use various forms of art – film, literature, mass media – to promote cross-cultural understanding in the island. But we’re still looking for more creative ways of building peace. How many can you think of?