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Turkish Ballerina Ends up in the Pentagon - 2002-04-17


English Feature #7-33486 Broadcast April 10, 2000

People emigrate to America for many reasons. Today on New American Voices we'll introduce you to a Turkish ballerina who left behind everything that was familiar and followed her American soldier husband to the New World.

Esra Ozben is a strikingly beautiful Turkish woman with red hair and copper skin that she inherited from some distant Sudanese and Egyptian ancestors. A native of Istanbul, at the age of twelve Esra won a full scholarship to study ballet at the Ankara State Conservatory. After graduation, nine years later, she was offered a position with a renowned ballet company in Germany. So how did she end up in the United States?

"Well, it was very unplanned. My idea was to go to Germany and dance and travel around Europe a little bit and then return back to my homeland and work for the state theatre in Istanbul. That was the plan, however, life doesn't work that way. I met my husband in Germany, who was an army officer at the time stationed in Germany, and we dated, and after a year or so we decided to get married, and he got his orders to return to the United States."

Esra accompanied her new husband back to his military base in a little town in Kansas, in the heartland of the United States. Fort Riley, Kansas was nothing like the mostly urban, sophisticated America Esra had seen in movies and in soap operas on television.

"Well, at first I thought I had landed in a different country. It was of course very different. I don't want to say it was disappointing, but it was not at all what I was expecting. Actually, it was a very big, important army base, but there was nothing other than the army and farms there. It was truly a village, and farmers. I had never even been to places like that in my own country, you know. This was a town that had only one street, everybody knew one another, and everybody either worked for the army or they were soldiers. So it was a very limited lifestyle, it had no educational or cultural activities, nothing - so it was very depressing, at first."

Esra Ozben admits that during the three years that her husband was stationed at this army base, she spent as much time as she could back home in Turkey or visiting friends in Europe. Eventually she became accustomed to life in the United States. Still, it took her quite a long time to decide that she would actually stay here. What led to that decision?

"I have a daughter who was born and raised here, I wanted her to have both cultures. I want her to recognize her American heritage as well as her Turkish heritage. That was very important to me, that she would know both. I didn't want to yank her out of this environment because she loves it here. And being here for seven-eight years and working here, I made very good friends. This became my home."

Although she was trained as a classical ballerina, Esra Ozben works as a specialist in personnel issues for the Pentagon.

"I have established a second career out of necessity, because I was not able to dance any more, because there was nothing around, really. So when we lived around another army base I volunteered for the human services department to just go do some volunteer work so I would learn some office skills, because I didn't know anything other than dancing. You know, nothing at all. And then they had a paid position came open, I applied and I was hired. And later on they had a very good internship position that provided great advancement opportunities as a professional human resources specialist. I was selected for that position, which took me eventually to the Pentagon. That's what I do now. I work as a human resources specialist. I love my job."

(O.D.):" Because you do have that Sudanese and Egyptian background, did you experience any discrimination or any hardships here in being able to attain what you set out to do?"

"I don't think I have. But I'll be honest with you, I'm not as sensitive as a black person who was born and raised in this country. I'm sure I have, I just don't recognize it because I don't have my antennae up, so to speak, but that's obviously an issue in this country still. But I have to say, this country in general has been very good to me."

Nevertheless, when she retires Esra Ozben wants to return to Turkey, where she has family and friends and which she still refers to as "home". Immigrants to America solve the dilemma of belonging to two cultures, and two countries, in various ways. Next week on New American Voices you'll meet an American from Poland who has a particularly thoughtful answer to this question of identity.

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