TURKS immigrated to Cleveland in two distinct periods. The first Turkish immigrants were part of a movement of various ethnic groups from the former Ottoman Empire to the United States which began in earnest in the 1890s and ceased in the early 1920s with the advent of new, restrictive immigration laws and the almost simultaneous rise of the modern Turkish Republic from the remains of the Ottoman state. The second wave of immigration began in the early 1950s and was a consequence of closer diplomatic and military relations between the United States and the Turkish Republic.
Among the peoples who emigrated from the Ottoman Empire, the Turks are characterized by the fact that they or their families were Muslim and their language Turkish. This differentiates them from the Christian groups, such as the Armenians or Greeks, who came from the Empire or Arabic speaking Muslims who also emigrated from Ottoman Turkey. Talat Halman, in the Harvard Encyclopedia of American Ethnic Groups, provides the following definition: "The term Turk or Turkish designates a person born in the Ottoman Empire before 1923 or in the Turkish Republic after 1923, who is Muslim or whose family was Muslim, who was raised in a Turkish speaking household and who identifies as a Turk."
Given the variety of peoples who emigrated from the Ottoman Empire and the fact that United States immigration statistics for that country were not sub-categorized by "ethnicity" until the late 1890s it is difficult to ascertain the number of Turks who came to the United States in the late nineteenth and the first decades of the twentieth century. Estimates now range between 25,000 and 50,000. Determining the number of Turks resident in Cleveland and Cuyahoga County is equally problematic as the Federal Census also does not delineate by ethnicity. For example, the census lists two people born in Turkey in Cleveland in 1870 and forty-one in 1900. The numbers increase substantially afterwards: for 1910, 748 Clevelanders listed their birthplace as Turkey (there were a total of 754 in Cuyahoga County); in 1920 there were 661 in Cleveland (county figures are not given); and in 1930, 468 in Cleveland (528 total in Cuyahoga County). However, these figures are of all ethnicities (Turkish, Armenian, Arab, Jewish or Greek) from the Ottoman Empire or, after 1920, the modern Republic of Turkey. The 1910 census, which lists languages spoken provides the first reliable number of Turks living in the city. In 1910, 28 Cleveland residents spoke Turkish. The figures for Turkish speakers in the city and county are yet to be extracted from the 1920 and 1930 census records.
A review of the census itself then shows most of the early Turkish speaking people in Cleveland to be from the Ottoman Balkan provinces rather than from Asia Minor (Anatolia, the heart of modern Turkey). This seems to fit a pattern in which Balkan "Turks" constituted the majority in Turkish communities in the Western Pennsylvania and eastern Ohio. This differs from Turkish communities in Massachusetts and Detroit where the bulk of the immigrants came from Anatolia proper.
As was the case elsewhere in the United States, this early Turkish community was almost entirely male. Most worked as wage laborers in area factories. The center of population by the 1910s was in the area of Bolivar and Eagle Street. Later the community moved out along Woodland Avenue between East 28th and 30th Streets. By the early 1940s, what remained of the community had moved east near to the intersection of East 51st and Woodland.
As a very small Muslim minority within a predominantly Christian city, the early Turks were compelled to create their own culturally supportive institutions. On January 7, 1918, they incorporated an Islamic association (its name have been given either as The Association of Islamic Union of Cleveland or the Association of the Islamic Lodge of Cleveland) "...to foster social relations and solidarity among the Moslems." In that year the Association purchased a burial plot in Highland Park Cemetery in which a number of the early settlers have been interred. Into the 1940s, a series of coffee shops, such as Ramadan Kamil's, and a delicatessen — Mustefa's delicatessen at 5211 Woodland — served as meeting places for the community, both for the Association and also for socializing.
Many of the early Turks moved out of Cleveland with those of Anatolian origin often moving back to Turkey, most usually after the creation of the Turkish Republic in 1923. Overall, the early Turks in the United States had one of the highest return rates (an estimated 80.5 percent) of all immigrant groups. Return was occasioned in part by the fact that a Muslim marriage was almost impossible in Cleveland, as was the case then throughout the United States. Those men who did marry took their brides largely from first or second-generation Christian immigrant groups. By the early 1950s, perhaps a dozen or two dozen early Turks remained in Cleveland.
It was at that point that the second phase of Turkish immigration to the city began. Unlike the first, it was, and is comprised largely of highly trained and skilled immigrants, essentially the sons and daughters of the westernized, secular Republic established by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in 1923. Turkey's entry into the NATO alliance in 1952, and the activities of the Marshall Plan within Turkey provided the impetus for this new Turkish emigration of doctors, students, and academicians. Dr. Abdullah Okutan came to Cleveland from Istanbul in 1952 to work in the Sunny Acres Hospital. When he arrived he found one other Turkish doctor in the city along with a handful of the early Turks, some of whom still resided downtown near the old center of Turkish settlement.
By 1965 an estimated 100 Turks lived in Greater Cleveland, the majority of them employed with or being trained by area universities and hospitals, including Western Reserve University, and the Cleveland Clinic. In that same year, the revision of the American immigration law opened the door to increased numbers of immigrants from Turkey and other nations. The increased flow of immigrants led to the establishment of the Turkish American Association of Northeastern Ohio (TASNO) on January 3, 1977. Since that time it has served as the voice and advocate for the local Turkish American population. TASNO has sponsored language schools, created a Turkish dance troupe, and has sponsored or hosted the visit of cultural and performing groups from Turkey. TASNO has also served as the community's voice in issues, such as those relating to Turkey itself and those that bear upon the Turks resident in the United States.
The rise of the Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Turkey in the early 2000s and the growth of Gulen movement (directed by exiled religious leader Fetullah Gulen) led to the creation of new organizations in the state and in Cleveland. The Turkish American Society of Ohio (TASO), a Gulenist organization was established in Columbus in 2008. It soon established a branch in Cleveland. Supported by the Gulen-led Niagara Foundation, TASO and TASO Cleveland became active in sponsoring cross cultural activities including trips to Turkey.
Currently, the Turkish population of northeast Ohio is estimated at about 1,000 (an estimated 500,000 Turks live in the United States). That population differs vastly from the first group of immigrants. It includes a number of students pursuing higher education at area universities, most prominently, CASE WESTERN RESERVE and CLEVELAND STATE. Direct educational connections with Turkey have become increasingly common. Case Western Reserve University maintains an exchange program with Bilkent University in Ankara, Turkey, and Cleveland State created programs with Anadalu and Bacesehir universities. JOHN CARROLL UNIVERSITY has established a chair in Islamic Studies (held by Professor Zeki Saritoprak as of 2019).
As the population has grown it has become more gender balanced with most of the men and women engaged in medicine, research, or education. Geographically, most Turks live in the city's eastern or southern suburbs. Within those areas there is no specific Turkish "neighborhood." Like other contemporary national and immigrant groups in Cleveland, the Turks become most visible when they gather for national holidays, such as the Republic Day on October 29th or when they take part in larger festivals, such as the annual Folk Festival, that focus on diversity in the community.
John J. Grabowski
Case Western Reserve University
Western Reserve Historical Society