Recai Karaca Pak is touring Europe on his bicycle to fight radicalism by promoting his culture to the people he meets along the way.
It has been almost 15 months since a Turkish man, Recai Karaca Pak, who was born and raised in Germany, started his journey on a bicycle emblazoned with a Turkish flag. His mission is to push back against the racist and Islamophobic perception of Muslims and Turks in Europe.
Now, after pedalling across nearly 10,000 km, Karaca Pak is in Turkey.
''It was like jumping into the ice-cold water, as I had nothing to do with long bike rides or camping in the wilderness beforehand,'' said the 47-year-old Karaca Pak.
The bicycle journey that started from Cologne to Munich, then to Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Serbia, Bulgaria and finally Turkey was an unfamiliar challenge for him.
''I always kept telling myself 'Recai ...it will get better very soon ...you will get used to it’, unfortunately, that was not the case. Sitting on the bike for five, six or even ten hours a day was just one of the problems.
Then the camping, I had never slept outside in my life before. You are all alone at night in the forest or staying lonely on a mountain, a knife in one hand and a flashlight in the other.’’
But these difficulties were not enough to sway him from his mission since the message he wanted to convey was more important than anything else.
''The way we deliver this message should be different,” Karaca Pak explained.
Metaphorically speaking, the bike means moving slowly but leaving a trace over the false perceptions built over time.
Over 60 years ago, Karaca Pak's family migrated to Germany seeking better job opportunities. His family had to give up everything and leave their home due to financial problems.
''Our loved ones, our families and relatives, our language and history, our delicious food. We gave up on everything.''
Karaca Pak studied at Kassel University in Germany and established a company after studying civil and industrial engineering. Later, he expanded his company’s work to the medical engineering field and worked with banks like Deutsche Bank and global behemoths like JP Morgan.
However, despite their devoted work and understanding of life in Germany, he underlines that he and his family are scarred by their experiences of racism and propaganda.
“I have been consciously looking at the news for 30 years and I do not remember a single day that they adequately showed Turkey, our religion and our culture,'' Karaca Pak said while indicating that most of the media outlets maintain a biased image of Turks and Muslims.
He started his cycling initiative with a whole team backing him and planned to talk with as many people as possible around Europe to spread awareness against what he describes as an injustice.
While he cycled alone for hours, his team checked the entire itinerary and weather conditions for him.
''As a team, we believed in this initiative and journey. It was a starting point for raising awareness and we believed we could do something. We wanted to appeal to people.''
According to Karaca Pak, curiosity and openness are the key features when it comes to communicating with people about these issues.
''Getting to know them, communicating and working together. These are the necessities to mitigate the situation,'' he said.
Karaca Pak took that approach and discussed with individuals and large groups during his journey - he talked and argued with people in cafes, restaurants, and on benches. Although older people have a stricter understanding of what he shared, he did not encounter negative reactions, except for a German who refused to give him water when he asked.
''We want to encourage people to get to know each other one-on-one, but also to share their culture, values, food, and maybe even knowledge about faith or non-belief.''
In fact, he managed to become a guest in the house of a radical Serbian family which he met by chance. He thinks that his direct and sincere interaction played a role in sharing a table. But at that time, he didn’t yet know who they were.
''Later, when I talked to my team about a few pictures that consist of hand gestures in their house, we realised they were radicals and I was very surprised.''
As he continued to exchange ideas with people and pedalled towards Turkey, Karaca Pak found the opportunity to think about radical ideologies and why these ideologies are a chronic affliction in Europe.
''I believe that racism in Germany and Europe does not come from the people, but is brought to the people by the elite and the political parties.''
He argues that racism is a disease that we have to face in every generation. But the most important factor in the spread of this disease is political actors who push for radicalism for the sake of electoral gains and media organisations who amplify these divisions.
''We have to convey our history and culture to everyone. People need to know what their advantages are in approaching a new culture and tolerating it as normal.''
In light of this, Karaca Pak also drew attention to the Turkish flag waving behind his bicycle while entering Turkey. For him, the flag is a very important part of this journey.
He stitched together the flag by collecting materials from each of the countries he travelled to as if ''collecting and integrating the pieces of cooperation with these countries.''
''I bought red fabric from Austria, white fabric from Hungary, you know from Attila’s grandchildren, and a pole from Serbia. And that's how I made the flag,'' he said. He highlighted the white fabric he bought from Hungary, a country that is also a member of the Turkic Council and believed to be related to the Turks due to their ruler Atilla the Hun, who governed one of the historic Turkic tribes.
Asked about his next destination in this journey for awareness, Karaca Pak said that he would go to Mongolia by plane from Turkey and return on his bicycle from there.
"I plan to travel approximately 14,000 kilometres by cycling to the places of our ancestors. We will put a sign against all kinds of racism wherever we go.''
''We care about this in order to get to know and promote our culture better.''
Although he believes that he has fulfilled an important duty, for him, this is just the beginning.
''This road is only a small beginning of many. We want nothing more than to make the world we live in a better place and offer our children solutions for a better world.''
Returning to that radical Serbian family, and within the context of several far-right attacks in Europe, when asked about whether he feared a similar fate, he laughed and said, "but nothing happened. I guess some things have to do with how you communicate and approach people.’’