After two years of construction, the Sancar Turkish Cultural & Community Center — named after Nobel Laureate and UNC professor Aziz Sancar — will formally open its doors on Oct. 29 for Turkish Republic Day.
Though the $5 million facility has unofficially been open since June, Gwen Sancar — the chief operating officer of the Sancar Center, emeritus professor of biochemistry and biophysics at UNC and wife of Aziz Sancar — said they are still working on the building's finishing touches.
The center has plans for a variety of activities to create a space for Turkish residents to celebrate their identity and find a community.
The Sancars began working with students in 2007 with the creation of their nonprofit, The Aziz and Gwen Sancar Foundation. The duo would host Turkish students and scholars at the Carolina Turk Evi, the former headquarters of the foundation, in order to promote cultural interactions between Turkish students and Americans.
The Turk Evi served around a dozen students, and Gwen Sancar said she and Aziz always dreamed of expanding.
“We thought to ourselves, ‘Is there some way that we can make this larger?’” Gwen Sancar said. “And when (Aziz) won the Nobel Prize, we thought, ‘Well, this might be our chance.’”
Using Aziz Sancar’s share of the Nobel Prize money, as well as many other generous donations, the center finally began construction in 2019.
Now that the center is up and running, Gwen Sancar said they are excited to resume some of their student-focused events.
On Aug. 22, the center hosted its first official student event in the new facility — a welcome party for Turkish students from UNC, Duke and N.C. State. UNC junior Rida Bayraktar, the president of the UNC Turkish Student Association, was one of many who attended the celebration.
“I thought that because of the pandemic and everything going on that the turnout would be lower, but there were around 50 students from the area,” she said. “So it was nice to connect with the Turkish community (in the Triangle).”
In addition to serving students, Gwen Sancar has many other plans for the Sancar Center, such as hosting weddings, throwing Turkish celebrations and holding English as a second language courses. Ultimately, she hopes the center will work to fill a variety of community needs.
Gwen Sancar said her love for Turkey, in combination with her love for Chapel Hill, fuels her passion for serving the local Turkish community.
“I think that (Chapel Hill) is one of the few small towns in the United States where you could put something like this and it would be accepted,” Gwen Sancar said. “It speaks to the way that people here appreciate people from different cultures.”
UNC senior Esra Mucahit, the vice president of the TSA, said she didn't know that there was such a big Turkish community in the Chapel Hill area.
“I think it is a good place for non-Turkish students to learn more about the culture and for Turkish students — especially international Turkish students — to feel welcome," Mucahit said.
She said it's been hard to keep her cultural identity alive in the U.S. sometimes and that it's nice to know a place where she can say she belongs.
Having lived in Istanbul for the majority of her life, Bayraktar said the center fills a void that she once saw in the Chapel Hill area.
“I couldn’t find that much of my identity and art here because it is a smaller community,” Bayraktar said. “But this Turkish house being such a wonderful art piece and cultural piece really made me proud again of my identity being here.”