University officials joined dignitaries from Turkey and Chapel Hill town representatives Aug. 30 to celebrate the groundbreaking for the Sancar Turkish Cultural and Community Center, named for Carolina’s Nobel Prize winner Aziz Sancar and his wife, Gwen.
Since 2007, the Sancars have run the nonprofit Carolina Turk Evi (Turkish Center) that hosts Turkish students and scholars and promotes understanding between Turks and America.
The new complex includes a 9,700-square-foot community hall with classrooms and offices, along with a two-story scholars guesthouse located at the rear of the 1.7-acre property at 1609 E. Franklin St.
The mission is not new, Gwen Sancar said. It just grew bigger.
Aziz Sancar, a native of Turkey who has worked at Carolina since 1982, won the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 2015. His wife, Gwen, a fellow research professor whom he met in Dallas, is an emeritus professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics.
“When we visited Turkey after the Nobel Prize ceremony, it was quite clear that this prize was going to be a very big deal over in Turkey,” Gwen Sancar said. “We were literally mobbed by well-wishers.”
Aziz Sancar was the second native of Turkey to win a Nobel and the first to win in science.
“We said to each other, ‘Well, this might be a good time to try to do something bigger that we can leave as our legacy’ and that’s what we’re trying to do,” Gwen Sancar said.
The Sancars have donated all proceeds from the Nobel (about $333,000) and will use profits from the sale of the other Franklin Street property to raise money for the project that Gwen Sancar estimates will cost more than $5 million.
After the initial excitement of winning the Nobel died down, Aziz Sancar donated the original Nobel medal to Turkey.
During the groundbreaking ceremony, Serdar Kilic, Turkey’s ambassador to the United States, extended greetings from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan who, Kilic said, “holds a special place in his heart for Aziz and Gwen Sancar.”
While the United States provided Aziz Sancar with the opportunities he needed to advance his work, Kilic said, Aziz Sancar has “always praised Turkey as the cradle he emerged from.”
Aziz Sancar is appreciated for being a guiding figure and a guardian angel for the young scientists who arrive from Turkey “gifted in intelligence” but not in financial resources, Kilic said. But Aziz Sancar is also appreciated for his efforts to bridge the gap in understanding between the people of Turkey and the people of the United States.
The new center, Aziz Sancar said, would not have been possible without the financial and moral support he has received from the Turkish government as well as the Turkish people – from construction workers to business owners to a police officer who wrote him a letter saying “I’ll send you $50.”
“This has been very important to us because the Turkish community understands the importance of explaining our country and our culture to our American friends,” Aziz Sancar said.
The Sancar Turkish Cultural and Community Center is expected to open in January 2020.