New Castle News

July 24, 2013

Photos, Story: New Castle man living new life in Turkey

Kayleen Cubbal
New Castle News

NEW CASTLE — All Russ Relic wanted was something to eat.

Just days into his daring move to Turkey early last year, the New Castle native felt a much-needed connection to home when he spotted a familiar site — McDonald’s.

So Relic walked in, looked at the menu and immediately found his favorite meal.

“I’ll take a Number 1 meal with Sprite,” he told the counter worker.

The worker, a Turkish national, looked at him and shook his head.

“Big Mac, fries and a Sprite, please,” Relic tried again.

Still another shake of the head.

Relic stood helplessly, wondering what to do next. He felt a sense of relief when a young Turkish boy walked into the restaurant.

“Do you speak English?” Relic asked him.

“Yes,” the boy said.

“How do I say Big Mac, fries and a Sprite in Turkish?” Relic asked.

The boy turned to the clerk and said in perfect English, “the man wants a Big Mac, fries and a Sprite.”

The clerk nodded, smiled and filled the order.

“I left there,” Relic said, “wondering what had just happened. And what the heck I had gotten myself into.”



A LIFETIME

OF EXPERIENCES


What Relic had gotten himself into has proved to be the adventure of a lifetime.

In the space of 20 months, the son of East Side residents Russ and Cheryl Relic left behind the only life he has known for the past 29 years in the United States to accept a teaching job in Adana, Turkey, where he found himself handicapped to communicate as he learns the language in a country that is in the middle of months of protests against Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

In the midst of it all, Relic met Raina Colak, a Turkish national with whom he fell in love and married six months after his arrival. On Friday, the two celebrated the birth of their first child, a daughter they named Ada Maria.

“Overall, the last 20 months have been extremely rewarding in many ways. It has opened my eyes more about this crazy world,” Relic said. “I don’t regret a minute of it. I found love and now I have a beautiful little girl.”



THE ROAD TO TURKEY

Relic was a quarterback for the New Castle High football team prior to his graduation in 2002. He went on to Grove City College, graduating in 2007 with a bachelor of arts degree with a secondary education teaching certificate in social studies.

He coached football at New Castle in 2005 and two years later, helped coach quarterbacks at Grove City College.

In late 2007, Relic moved to Phoenix and spent three years coaching and five years teaching at an inner city school district. For about a year, he also worked with a friend at a company in Arizona. It was there that he met a Turkish man named Ugur “Mike” Boyunince, who quickly become Relic’s best friend. The two went to the gym every day and discussed politics or life. Boyunince is married and has three children, while Relic was single and had no kids at the time.

“Mike knew I was a teacher and one day in May 2011, he looked at me and said, ‘How about going to Turkey, to my country, to teach? I can help you get there,’ ” Relic said. “I thought about it and was on the fence. It was far away and many things were different than America. However, while this was going on, I began talking via Skype every day with Mike’s cousin, Raina. The more we talked, the more I wanted to meet her. After months of thinking about it, in October of 2011, I took a leap of faith and made the biggest decision of my life. I bought my ticket to arrive in Adana on Jan. 6, 2012.”

Relic said he was met with mixed reaction from family and friends on whether he should go. Among those he consulted was his former New Castle High football coach, Gary Schooley, who told him he had nothing to lose and encouraged him to follow his heart.

“My dad also told me to go for it or I’d always regret not taking the chance,” Relic said. “My mom wasn’t sure. Her little boy was going to a strange country where he didn’t know how to speak the language. She was worried, especially when she found out I bought a one-way ticket.”



“WHAT DID I DO?”

It didn’t take Relic long to second-guess his decision.

“As I was leaving the Adana airport after arriving, my first impression was what did I do?” he said. “A friend picked me up at the airport and took me through the old city, which is the area of Adana that has a very low socioeconomic status. The average they make a month is $300 or $400. I saw chickens walking on the street and cars not staying in their lane but driving in two lanes at the same time and sometimes not stopping at red lights. When I called home, I joked with my Grandpa Joe (Sanchez) and said he would fit in well here.”

Relic worked for a language school for the first four months.

“I left after I ate an undercooked chicken sandwich and the school failed to provide me proper health care,” he said. “I was extremely ill, resulting in three hospital visits and a ton of antibiotics.”

In May 2012, Relic met his current boss, Angela Matheson, a British national who owns a school in Mersin, Turkey. He worked for her school for several months and in September, began working at a private school in Adana, where Matheson is the head of the English department and where he is able to make more money than at a public school. Last year, he taught fifth-grade reading, writing and speaking and was named newcomer of the year on the teaching staff.

“This past year went well. The kids learned a lot in a short time,” Relic said. “This upcoming school year, as the kids move on to the sixth grade, I will continue with them.

“Some of the kids speak some English and some don’t speak any English at all. That is the challenge that I love, introducing English to a foreign student for the first time in their lives.”



THE WEDDING

On June 12, 2012, Russ and Raina married in a traditional Turkish wedding ceremony, with the blessing of her parents and other family members. While 28-year-old Raina speaks fluent English, her mom speaks no English and her dad just a little.

“Of course my parents expected me to marry a Turkish man, but after they met Russ, they said they could see that I would not be as happy with any other man as I was with him,” she said. “They said they liked his character.”

Relic’s parents were on board as well.

“My dad was unable to travel, but my mom came three or four days before the wedding,” he said. “I think she was still a little skeptical before she got here, but once she met Raina she fell in love with her. She agreed that I met the love of my life.”

Cheryl will get the chance to fall in love again next week when she travels to Adana to meet her granddaughter for the first time.



THE PROTESTS

Protests in Turkey started May 28, initially to contest the urban development plan for Istanbul’s Taksim Gezi Park and heightened by outrage at an eviction of a sit-in at the park protesting the plan. Protests and strikes followed across Turkey, centering on a wide range of concerns, including freedom of the press, freedom of expression, freedom of assembly and the government’s attempts to control Turkey’s secularism.

As protests continued across the country, the use of tear gas and water cannons by police led to thousands of arrests and injuries and 15 deaths.

On June 11, riot police moved back into Taksim Square and four days later, following peaceful sit-ins at the square, police moved in and rapidly cleared and occupied the park and square. Protests have continued, prompting Relic to email media outlets across the world, including CNN, Fox News, MSNBC and the New York Times.

“I’ve never been involved in anything like this in my life, but I have tried to help the Turkish peoples’ cause,” Relic said. “The people are expressing their anger over the direction of the country. I was warned not to attend the protests, so I’ve tried to help with emails about what is happening here. As a student of history and studying this region, I know the amount of blood and tears it took to build this current modern nation of Turkey. Also, I learned much by listening to the local Turks tell me the history or stories that are not in our history books in school. I am not doing this for political reasons. I am doing it because what has happened in many ways is a huge violation of human rights and freedom of speech and expression.”

Relic has needed to keep his family out of harm’s way.

“The police have been arresting people right in front of my house,” he said. “You see water cannons going up the street and the police will shoot anyone with water or rubber bullets that happens to be out at that time. We make sure we avoid going out onto the street when we see the police anywhere near.

“The whole thing is surreal, sometimes I can’t believe I’m in the middle of all of it.”



THE FUTURE

Ada Maria is considered a Turkish national, but Relic will seek dual citizenship for her in the United States within the next few months.

He said he likely will remain in Turkey for the long term, as he continues to learn the language and the way of the Turkish people.

“People are very friendly and have welcomed me,” he said. “But we buy a lot of our fruits and vegetables at the farmers market and for the longest time, Raina insisted on going with me, because they will take advantage of a foreigner in a heartbeat. I came home with a watermelon when she was unable to get around in the last days of her pregnancy and she asked what I paid. I thought I did really well and told her I paid five Turkish lira, which is about $2.50. She said I got ripped off, that I shouldn’t have paid more than 50 cents or a dollar.

“I still have a lot to learn,” Relic added with a laugh. “But I’ll get it eventually. My life may not be conventional, but I’m happy, I have everything I want. How many people can really say that?”

(Email: kcubbal@newsonline.com).