Suitcase in hand, he showed up at his dorm at TOBB University of Economics and Technology in the capital city of Ankara. But no one had explained to his Turkish roommate who he was or why he was there. Unable to communicate with each other, the two just sat in awkward silence.

With introductions out of the way, and a successful navigation of the language barrier under his belt, Rhein happily returned to his native language to begin his summer duties. For eight weeks, he worked with about 60 Turkish foreign ministers to improve their English skills. He planned a daily lesson with the help of TOBB professors and then gave an hour-long lecture three times each day to small groups of foreign ministers.

Many of the daily lectures centered on a controversial topic.

“The professors told me, ‘We want you to talk about controversial things because we want these guys to be able to talk about controversial things calmly,’” Rhein says. “It was an intimidating experience. These were smart, impressive guys. But the professors told me, ‘You have the English skills they want so don’t worry about it. Just go in and talk.’”

He did, and the professors were so appreciative they would often take him out to dinner and show him around town. But he says it was sometimes a difficult juggling act. He spent the day teaching the ministers and then would spend evenings back at the dorm with students who didn't trust the government.

It was an unexpectedly complicated aspect of his position and it taught him a lot, including that he needed to know much more about the region and is looking into the possibility of graduate school to expand his understanding. The Middle East “is much too big for me to understand in four years,” says Rhein, a sophomore.

Conversations Along the Border

As significant as these experiences were, the most impactful part of his summer occurred at the end of his time in Turkey.

An all-too-common scene of destruction from conflict along the Turkey-Syrian border in 2013.
Photo by Bulent Kilic/AFP/Getty Images.

It took several days, many phone calls and a bit of hitchhiking, but he eventually reached the Turkey-Syria border. In a small hospital room, he met with a dozen Syrians including young rebel soldiers—some wounded, some missing limbs—who were fighting the government of Syria. He says he thinks about the meeting every day.

“I was the first American they had ever met, and maybe the only American they’ll ever meet,” he says. “I felt a huge responsibility. These were people who were being so honest with me, telling me what their lives were like. They wanted to know why I was there. They wanted to know what I could do for them. It’s something that sticks with me every day.”

His summer in Turkey gave him a new perspective as he sits in his U-M classes. He now possesses an additional layer of understanding that makes him a better student.

Last year, in the same rooms, he could discuss the Middle East analytically and dispassionately. But now, he’s met the people he talks about, has visited them in their homes and heard their hopes and dreams.  His academic understanding is still there, but it’s guided and nuanced by experience and insight -- and by the new friendships he developed over two months.

“A lot of people are ignorant about the Middle East,” he says. “I can’t be ignorant anymore. These are my friends.”

Cover photo courtesy of Tim Rhein. Top photo by Rüstem Türkmen.