For centuries, Turkey has been one of the world’s leading cultural hubs. Centrally located between several geographic regions, including three surrounding seas, the hot desert climate of the Middle East, and the more temperate Mediterranean zone; Turkey is incredibly diverse, both ethnically and geographically. A popular destination among travelers, Turkey also hosts volunteer opportunities in everything from teaching English to community development to farming and even yoga. Those who volunteer abroad in Turkey will have no shortage of historical sites to visit on their free time, or even other countries, since it is quite easy to travel to numerous neighboring countries.
As a bridge joining the Mediterranean and the Middle East, Turkey is a geographical and historical hot spot of cultural exchange and diversity. Most volunteer programs in Turkey are located in the larger cities, which are outlined below.
Ankara. The capital of Turkey has a population of over 4.5 million people, and is the second largest city in the country. This old city has a fascinating history, illustrated by the many Hellenistic, Roman, and Byzantine archaeological sites. In addition to being a commercial and industrial center, Ankara is famous for Angora wool, honey, wax, and berries. Individuals can volunteer in Ankara in a number of placements, including those related to education, supporting at-risk youth, orphan care, construction, conservation, and agriculture.
Istanbul. As the largest city and cultural and economic center of the country, Istanbul is a great place to start looking for volunteer opportunities in Turkey. With over 14 million residents, it’s the largest European city, and happens to be historically located on the infamous Silk Road.
Bursa. Located in the green forests of the Northwest, Bursa is surrounded by fertile lands and farms. It’s famous for its cuisine, and for having one of the highest educated populations in the country. The economy mainly relies on the automotive, textile, and food industries, but it’s a great place for volunteers to get involved in conservation, restoration, archaeology, construction, and teaching.
Volunteer Programs in Turkey
While there are a range of different ways to volunteer in Turkey, a few fields stand out above the rest in terms of offering the largest number of placement opportunities.
Teaching English. No matter where you choose to volunteer in Turkey, there will always be opportunities to teach English. Whether in a private or public school, language institute, or tutoring a local family, volunteer English teachers are in high demand across the country. Depending on the teaching placement, requirements for volunteers vary, so be sure to check with your volunteer program provider to verify which teaching positions you qualify for.
Community Development. Populous cities, like Istanbul and Ankara, are generally in the most need of volunteers to help with various community development projects. Some of the most common volunteer projects in Turkey include working with the homeless or people with disabilities, assisting elderly persons, and taking care of orphans or underprivileged children. Those interested in social work can also find volunteer opportunities working with at-risk youth or even ex-convicts.
Conservation. There is also a high demand for volunteers in all aspects of conservation in Turkey, whether in the field, working on research, assisting in the preservation of sea turtles, collecting behavioral data on marine mammals, or organizing and cataloguing data. With so many seas and coastlines in Turkey, conservation volunteer placements are available across the country, and sometimes even allow volunteer to travel to multiple destinations for research purposes.
Costs & Affordability
Though Turkey is home to the largest European city, volunteering in Turkey does not come with a European price tag. The cost of living in Turkey is relatively low compared to Western counterparts. An inexpensive meal costs around $5, and you can add a beer for $3. Monthly transportation passes are around $50. Rent for a one bedroom apartment in the city center will set you back $300, or $550 for a three bedroom if you prefer living with roommates. Volunteering in Turkey’s rural areas can be even more affordable.
Many volunteer programs in Turkey require volunteers to pay a program fee, which covers accommodation and meals; however, it is also possible to volunteer abroad in Turkey for free. Make sure you do the research and check with your volunteer program provider so you know what the total costs of your program are and what’s included.
Accommodation & Visas
Depending on the specific volunteer program in Turkey you choose, you may be provided with a variety of accommodations. Volunteers usually stay in dormitory-style housing or share an apartment with other volunteers or roommates. Volunteers can also choose to live with a local host family, who will generally provide volunteers with a private bedroom. Homestays are a great option for volunteers looking to pick up some Turkish language skills while volunteering in Turkey. Alternatively, there are also volunteer programs in Turkey that allow volunteers to select their own housing independently, in which case you can reach out to the large expat community in Turkey for advice. Apartments in protected compounds are popular, but also much more expensive.
The rules for obtaining Turkish visas can be difficult to comprehend. Technically, volunteering in Turkey is still considered work, so you will need to look into getting a regular work visa and work permit, rather than a simple tourist visa. Additionally, if you plan to volunteer in Turkey for longer than 90 days, you will also need to apply for a residency permit. All of these visa requirements take time and money, so check with your volunteer program provider to make sure you are taking the necessary steps before departure.
Benefits & Challenges
Religion. The majority of the Turkish population practices Sunni Islam. If you’re unfamiliar with Muslim traditions, you may want to brush up on the basics before you volunteer abroad in Turkey, and especially learn the do’s and don’ts of their way of life.
Culture Shock. Turkish culture can be quite different and may take some getting used to. For instance, things move a lot slower, especially when it comes to administration and pushing things through any bureaucratic process, so remember to cultivate patience. Another example of cultural difference in Turkey is the treatment of women. Domestic violence against women in Turkey is still common, as are sexual and promiscuous stereotypes about American women. Foreign female volunteers should not go out alone, especially at night, so if you are a female be sure to always have a friend with you and steer clear of large groups of men.
Food comas. Both a benefit and a challenge of volunteering in Turkey, Turkish food is incredibly delicious (and hard to say “no” to). Pile your Turkish breakfast plate high with kabobs, baklava, and köfte, then slurp it all down with Ayran.
Pronouncing “thank you.” The Turkish word for “thank you” is teşekkür ederim, and is it just me or is it seriously a challenge to articulate? Try saying this three times fast: “teh-sheh-kir eh-dir-em.”