Lefter Cember, a Rum boy from Yaglidere, left his hometown during the 1923 population exchange between Greece and Turkey. It was winter, the journey was challenging and the harsh conditions took their toll on the Cember family in the form of sickness and death.
Lefter, now orphaned, was unable to continue and returned to Yaglidere, a town in the Black Sea region, where locals took care of him. But later, his journey would take him to the United States - and his journey would trigger a chain of migration that forever changed the town.
There is little information about which year Lefter left for the US or what he did when he first got there, however, it is generally accepted that Lefter ran a restaurant in the US. His business was successful and his quality of life was much better than what his hometown of Yaglidere could offer. Nevertheless, Lefter never forgot his homeland, and visited again in the early 1960s.
When he arrived back in Giresun, it was late at night, and he could not find his way towards his village. A tailor from Yaglidere, Izzet Aydin, helped Lefter reunite with his village and old friends. After spending time at home, and before returning to the US, Lefter invited the people of Yaglidere to come to the US and offered to help them make a living there.
Back then, not one of the 27,000 Yaglidere residents had heard of ‘America’. However, Izzet Aydin was so impressed by Lefter’s success that he decided to follow him. In 1967, Aydin headed to this unknown land with hopes of prosperity.
At that time, Lefter was running two bars in the US and employed Aydin as a cleaner, his first job in the US. The initial six months was a struggle for Aydin. He worked four jobs simultaneously, and the only person he knew was Lefter. After managing to settle down and make ends meet, he returned to his craft as a tailor.
The migration from Yaglidere to the US began with the desire to help fellow villagers, and continued with the same spirit. Izzet Aydin made it to the US with the help of Lefter, unaware that thousands would then follow in his footsteps.
In 1971, 19-year-old Sebahattin Aydin got on the plane to the US with his mother and brother. When they stepped off the plane, they saw people of all colours speaking several different languages for the first time in their lives — it was a completely new world. They tried to navigate this unknown land but did not speak English and had no money - a stark contrast between them and the Americans that surrounded them.
“Lefter came to pick us up from the airport. He didn’t know us, but he immediately recognised us from the way we looked. I still remember my first impression of him. He looked like James Bond,” said Sebahattin Aydin.
Cember and the Aydin family built a strong bond over time and always looked out for one another, such that when Lefter got sick, he settled in Aydin’s house and passed away there in 1975.
The flow of migration that originated with Lefter Cember and Izzet Aydin peaked in the 1980s. The amount of people from Yaglidere swelled in the US as the population in Yaglidere swiftly dipped. While the rest of Turkey migrated within the country or to Europe, the people of Yaglidere preferred migrating to the US because they already had a network there.
In time, what began as migration became immigration. As the migrants settled and started working in the US, they got used to living there. Children that were born in the US were among the primary factors that kept families there. Nevertheless, when Izzet Aydin passed away in the US in 2007, his family thought it would be best to bury him in Yaglidere.
“No matter how long we might have lived here, our home is still there,” said Sebahattin Aydin.
Sebahattin Aydin and his wife Emine Aydin got married in Yaglidere in 1973 while visiting their hometown and then returned to the US in 1974 where they had four children and nine grandchildren, all born and raised there.
“My mother would tell me about her first days here. She was afraid and anxious because the country was still foreign and the future was uncertain. There was also the sadness of being far from home. But they managed to build a family here and made the US their home as well,” their daughter Ozlem Aydin, said.
First-generation immigrants from Yaglidere mostly worked in the restaurant industry and settled in the same places because their network was there. Lefter had found employment for the Aydin family in the restaurant industry because it was his line of work. The same pattern emerged with the Aydin family helping later migrants.
The migrants eventually adapted to the US, learned English, and began opening up to different opportunities. Today, they work in several industries and live in various places. Sebahattin Aydin is now a building contractor in New Jersey and his daughter Ozlem is a manager on Wall Street in New York.
According to Sebahattin Aydin, migration and immigration from Yaglidere to the US continues today.
Sebahattin Aydin’s daughter in law, Zehra Aydin, has a lot of admiration for the efforts of her family and the people from Yaglidere. “The place they came from is so different from the life they lead here. They started from the bottom and now they are essential members of their community.”
Having arrived in 1971, Sebahattin Aydin has been living in the US for 50 years. There, people call him Sam, because Sebahattin is a challenging name for Americans. “I am an Americanised person, but Turkey is an essential part of my self-identity,'' said Sebahattin Aydin. There was a healthy integration process during which his family, like their fellow immigrants, strived to preserve their Turkish identity.
To preserve their culture, the Yaglidere community in the US organise gatherings and take part in events such as parades, picnics, festivals, and get togethers for iftar during Ramadan. “Every single year since I was a little kid there was always a Turkish Parade happening in Manhattan. The parade was something we all looked forward to growing up. It was an opportunity to enjoy our culture with our family and friends,” recalls Ozlem Aydin.
There is also a Turkish school in Manhattan named after Turkey’s founding father, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. The school’s mission is to raise new generations of Turkish-Americans in unity and establish a connection between them and Turkey.
First-generation immigrants from Yaglidere put great importance on establishing a connection between the newer generations and their homeland. They fear that their children will be assimilated and lose their Turkish roots.
One way of preserving their culture was speaking Turkish at home. The children of the Aydin family grew up with Turkish as their first language and only started learning English when they started kindergarten. Moreover, Sebahattin Aydin would regularly bring his children and grandchildren to Yaglidere.
“I am very much an American, but we have a balance,'' said Ozlem Aydin, “we are able to give love not just to where we live but also to where we came from.”
The 17-year-old daughter of Yavuz and Zehra Aydin, Sultan, is a third-generation immigrant. She is currently in high school and speaks English as her primary language, but she is also fluent in Turkish. She has been to Yaglidere with her family and remembers her hometown fondly.
“Being there was such a special experience. It was very different from the US. The scenery, the weather, the people… Everything was different and yet so familiar.” Although she was born and raised in the US, Turkey is and will always be a part of Sultan.
“I have a lot of respect for my grandfather and great-grandfather. They came here with nothing and gave us a great life.” says Sultan.
Yaglidere, on the other hand, has not changed much over the years. The economy is based on hazelnut farming as it had always been. Townspeople make a living through agriculture and local shops.
According to Mustafa Cebecioglu, the head of Yaglidere’s registry office, everyone in Yaglidere wants to go to the US because the pay-off to migrating there still trumps the idea of staying in Yaglidere. Living in the US is perceived as a path to higher income and social status. The young population is especially keen to immigrate.
Halit Yanbul, chief clerk of the Yaglidere Municipality, reports that the people of Yaglidere are not poor. But the opportunities in the US are vaster and more profitable.
During the 70s and especially 80s, people had migrated to the US illegally. Nowadays, everyone in Yaglidere knows someone who lives in the US, so they already have a foot in the door.
Still, some struggle with getting a visa. Hasan Yurt is one of them. His son went to the US illegally 20 years ago and is still there. Yurt has applied for a visa four times since then, but he was rejected each time. Since neither can visit the other, the father and son have not seen each other for two decades. According to Yurt, he is not being granted a visa because the US believes he will settle down once he is there, while he only intends to visit his loved ones and witness the life they built for themselves.
Yaglidere exemplifies a general trend in the rural areas of the Black Sea region. These areas still lack comprehensive development and their economy is largely agrarian - a sector that people no longer want to work in. Whether to the US or elsewhere, Yaglidere was destined to be a district that people migrated from like many other districts of the Black Sea.
Nevertheless, those who have gone to the US regularly visit home. The months between April and October mark the time of harvest in Turkey’s Black Sea region and thousands of migrants in the US choose this specific time to visit Yaglidere. They harvest the year’s hazelnut produce, spend time in their homes, connect with locals and go back to the US before October comes.
As the people of Yaglidere come and go, they create a cultural connection between Yaglidere and the US. Just like they carried their values and traditions to the US, they have carried pieces of the US to Yaglidere. Today, while walking the streets of Yaglidere, one can observe local shops named ‘New Yaglidere’ or ‘Balikci Mike’ (Fisherman Mike).