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Puerto Rico: A personal mission creates a new life experience for student journalist

By Natalia A. Bonilla-Berrios

ISTANBUL, TURKEY — The tourist guide never mentioned the humid hot air of Istanbul, Turkey. It made a difference when stepping out of the Ankara airport after 34 hours by air from San Juan, Puerto Rico to the 2010 World Youth Congress hosted by the city of Istanbul in August 2010.

Words fail me to describe the joy I felt once I saw the crowded streets of Istanbul as the taxi headed towards the Yildiz University Technical Campus, my accommodations for the next 17 days.

First impressions are deceiving

Coming from a country where almost every building is painted with vibrant colors, a glimpse at the Turkish architecture puzzled me to the point of curiosity. Perhaps built with the thought “appearances aren’t everything,” the architecture of Istanbul, I soon found out, held a wonderful surprise — colorful decoration was waiting for visitors inside the houses, mosques and shopping establishments.

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They did not rely merely on painting or drawing, but even in the modest of homes there was proof of an appreciation of an extravagant use of tiles. It was clearly evident in the Sultan Ahmet or what is often called the “Blue” Mosque. The floors and the chandeliers mirrored the devotion of the Ottoman Empire and the State to Islam.

Reporter Natalia Bonilla-Berrios poses in front of the Blue Mosque.

Using the headscarf and stepping out of my sandals, in order to enter the temple, was a minimum requirement to witness that incredible structural design. A girl stopped me as I was about to enter the pulpit area. “No women,” she commanded.

Men were the only ones allowed to pray inside the area.

That was my first encounter with Turkish customs. Fully understanding our cultural differences was difficult to digest on the way to Hagia Sophia, the former cathedral of Constantinople that was later turned into a mosque by the Ottomans.

Now a museum under construction, Sophia stands across from the Blue Mosque as a symbol of religious change but never stops from being a veneer one. Huge plates with Arabic inscriptions hang in the interior of the famous dome while hundreds of tourists snap photos of the altar, which currently signals the direction to Mecca.

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Interior of the Hagia Sophia.

Christian mosaics on certain walls are well preserved although time has ravaged their themes. There the light and solitude circulate throughout each room as gray and yellow patterns, both on the columns and on the ceilings. These reflections help visitors get lost in ancient tradition and history.

As a young journalist traveling as a correspondent for the first time on my own, language was not enough to explain the beauty and pain that inhabited those walls.

A personal mission

I came to Turkey with a mission: to prove to myself that I could do international reporting. What better way to do that than by visiting Istanbul and living for 15 days with 1,000 young students from about 100 nations?

“The best was yet to come,” I told myself the first day after I met my two Turkish roommates. The third one, an Egyptian, arrived two days later.

Naturally, the workshops and conferences required a higher level of understanding. Although most of the events were organized by young people ages 18-25 years-old, each gathering dealt with the same important themes facing today’s global leaders, such as: climate change, global poverty and human rights.

Nevertheless, the difficult task ahead as a reporter was not just to cover those discussions but to find stories of my own. While it was enlightening to serve as editor of the second edition of The Congress Times and conduct interviews with such interesting people as the founder and president of One Million Voices against the FARCS; a survivor of the Kosovo-Serbia war; a Jamaican activist who studied HIV incidence in Tanzania; and a Pakistani girl whose father is being hunted by terrorist organizations, the experience helped me develop a sense of what was really happening in the world.

Certainly it is not the same as listening to or reading the news about global affairs but to talk to people who have been in the midst of the storm and to be granted the opportunity to hear their side of the story, mostly captured by their memories, is fascinating.

Although there were times when sensibility and empathy stood in the way of my journalistic chore, I believe it forced me to learn that the best way I could help them was if I did my job which was to tell their stories. To develop stories from their personal experiences was easy compared to creating one about a place and people with which whom I could barely communicate.

The invisible Istanbul

For four days, I was embedded in Arnavutköy, an Istanbul district under construction founded only two years ago. Kids hanging out and playing on the streets, smiling at the sight of us foreigners, was intriguing.

It was equally interesting to learn that these children were not registered at any school. They did not pass the test to enter the elementary level, and even if they did, other factors such as economic means and space would interfere.



“Even if his house is next to the school, it doesn’t mean he will enter,” Ïsrafil Gülsün, a high school headmaster, clarified in an interview.

As part of my embed in Arnavutköy, I, along with ten other student delegates, worked in a garden and painted the walls of a public school due to open soon. It was a great experience. We got to see what it was really like living in a poor district, a clear contrast to the cultural richness of the urban areas of Istanbul.

The experience left me thinking that education, as well as civilization, will surely come with time, but what if, for a generation, it will be too late?

Leaving a piece of Puerto Rico in Istanbul

I came to Istanbul with nine other Puerto Rican university student activists. At the beginning, we formed a bond because we were coming from the same country and therefore, it was a relief to find someone who shared the same culture, and of course, Spanish language, in a new and strange country far from home.

Friendships developed fast and it took only a while for us to start planning activities, eating and dancing together. We supported each other in times where the World Youth Congress’ food selections took its toll on us or when we suffered from colds and headaches.

Two delegates, Christian Miranda and Andres Waldemar, offered the workshops “Using theatrical arts as tools to community development” and “Feel the Latin Rhythm” respectively. The latter one, which was a Salsa 101 exercise, made us famous among the other delegates.

We were expected at nightclubs in Taksim Square, such as Cuba Bar to showcase how we danced salsa, merengue and other Caribbean rhythms.

It’s no doubt we left an impression on Istanbul, as much as, the city and the people we met left on us.

How much our trip to Istanbul changed our perception of the city wasn’t felt until we were ready to leave. Just watching the Bosphorus Bridge light up a chilly sunset the day before our departure was a different experience than when we first saw the incredible structure lit up a few days after arriving in the city. By the time it was time to leave, the notion that Islamic and Turkish cultures were difficult to understand was old news after learning that we really are all the same.

Young leaders around the world have the same preoccupations. Though everyone has different ideas on how to handle important issues, in the end it was all about practicing tolerance and having patience to hear these different viewpoints — and it was worth every lira and shot.


Learn more about Natalia



Natalia A. Bonilla Berrios is a junior at the University of Puerto Rico (UPR) majoring in Journalism and minoring in Political Science, International Relations. Natalia has a 3.90 GPA.

She was the former president of the UPR student chapter of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, a member of the National Society of Collegiates and Scholars and was selected for the ‘Who’s Who Among Students in American Universities and Colleges’ program, during her freshman year.

In addition, she has worked as an intern reporter for Diálogo Digital, Puerto Rican Center of Investigative Journalism, served as a staff writer for Paréntesis newspaper, and as a volunteer reporter for IDentidad magazine.

Bonilla has served as student representative for the Freedom of the Press Center of Puerto Rico and has been selected as one of the UWIRE’s Top 100 Student Journalists of 2009.




She was selected for the Student Camp at Unity 2008, the quadrennial Journalists of Color Convention and also, as a volunteer for the 2009 International Year of Astronomy.



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