In the wake of World War II, President Eisenhower founded what has become the Sister Cities International program to encourage peace through “cultural, educational and informational trade exchanges.” Uniting 140 countries, the program matches US cities with those in other countries, creating excuses for connections of all sorts.
Houston has 17 sister cities around the globe, from Leipzig, Germany to Taipei, Taiwan and Perth, Australia. But one Sister City relationship in particular, that with Istanbul, Turkey, has developed subtly but steadily in recent years.
With the newly successful multi-year campaign to lobby Turkish Airlines to open direct flights from Houston to Istanbul, Mayor Parker, Houston and Istanbul have all paid more attention to the growing relationship between the two economies. And that is perhaps the strongest similarity between these two cities: powerhouse economies constantly grappling with and looking to expand their growth.
The sister city relationship provides an excuse to, among other things, facilitate trade between them. As M. Ruhi Ozgel, President of the Houston Istanbul Sister City Association explains, one-third of all Turkish exports to America come through the Port of Houston (a $3.6 billion market in 2011), and almost 30 percent of the Turkish exports to America are destined for Texas (impressive when you consider that Texas only represents about eight percent of the US population). In fact, after visiting Houston, the Turkish Finance Minister personally called a Turkish Airlines bigwig to tell him the company “has to come to Houston,” according to Ozgel.
Like much in Houston, the history of the Houston/Istanbul Sister City connection ties back to business, specifically one Houston businessman who fell in love with Istanbul and personally supervised the completion of the initiative. Now, the Houston Istanbul Sister City Association is above all a fosterer of trade and investment between the two cities. As Ozgel relays, in the last four to five years the Association has brought close to 4,000 Turkish businessmen to Houston. In turn, members of the Association lead trips of Houstonians to Turkey.
Notably, in 2013, Mayor Parker visited the country on a trip organized by the Sister City Association and the Texas Turkish American Chamber of Commerce, among others. According to Ozgel, these trips are designed to make Houston less of a “hidden treasure” by “showing the numbers” as well as helping Turkish visitors feel comfortable in a foreign business environment, and vice versa for Houstonians in Turkey.
Ozgel, who moved to Texas in 1988 to complete an MBA at the University of Houston, remembers when the first Turkish restaurant in the Bayou City (Istanbul Grill opened in Rice Village in 1998). Today there are seven restaurants around town. According to the Turkish Consulate, there are currently about 4,000 Turkish expats in Houston. The Raindrop Turkish House was founded by some of these expats in 2000, and operates as a social, educational, charitable and cultural center to facilitate interactions between the American and Turkish cultures.
Beside calling itself a “home to Turkish-Americans,” the center offers Turkish language classes, organizes trips to Turkey, and constantly offers events designed to showcase Turkish culture. It played host to the most recent televised Houston mayoral debate, and Madeline Albright actually cut the ribbon at the building’s inauguration.
Ipek Martinez is an Associate Dean of the Rice University School of Social Sciences and also a Turkish expat. As one of her many responsibilities at Rice, Martinez has been organizing “Global Urban Lab” trips of Rice students to Istanbul, facilitating the completion of comparative policy research white papers about the two cities. (In fact this is one of two comparative urban lab programs at Rice sending students to Istanbul.) These publicly available papers provide diverse views on comparing everything from transportation to professional sports to cultural heritage management in the two sister cities.
To her, as particularly evident in the research students have produced, something that has come to tie Houston and Istanbul is medical tourism. Istanbul has been growing its own private specialized medicine resources to make itself a destination, much like the Houston Medical Center. In fact, M.D. Anderson opened a Radiation Treatment Center at the American Hospital in Istanbul, its first international radiation treatment facility. Another interesting connection: the American Hospital itself was actually modeled after Methodist Hospital in Houston.
However, on the subject of comparing Houston and Istanbul, Martinez added, “Here’s the thing about sisters. They can be very different and still be connected. I have a sister, and we are quite different.” Indeed, it seems unlikely that the sprawling, not-even-200-year-old Houston and extremely dense and public transportation-dependent, over 2,000-year-old Istanbul would have much in common. And yet, the two cities have found common ground and maintained a consistently strengthening bond.
As Ozgel puts it, his goals for the Association in the upcoming years will not change much: “Who can we bring? Who can we take?” In his objective to make Houstonians and Istanbulites comfortable in each others’ cities, the largest hurdle seems to just be getting people to make the initial jump over the ocean and give the cities a first chance. Given that Turkish Airlines has increased the number of Houston-Istanbul flights, this hurdle will hopefully only become less discouraging.