Cultural Connections

Melvut “Hilmi” Cinar (BSIS ’06) believes in helping people make connections: between those who were born in the Middle East and Americans, between Jews and Muslims, between business people operating in different countries.

He wants those connections to be meaningful, wiping away stereotypes and forging relationships built on respect.

As vice president of Chicago-based nonprofit Niagara Foundation, Cinar is in a position to foster conversations and meaningful relationships between people of different cultures and faiths. The organization does this in a variety of ways, hosting dinners and conversations, coordinating travel and developing educational programs.

“People always fear the unknown, especially if you don’t know anybody from a certain background or tradition,” he says. “But if you have dinner with them, for example, people move past their stereotypes and their fears.”

“The world is dynamic and ever-changing and the only way to keep up with those changes is through education.”

Born and raised in Turkey, Cinar came to the United States during college. He took classes and also ran a Turkish restaurant. But even though he came from a family of entrepreneurs, Cinar wasn’t satisfied with just making money. “I wanted to do something for the people living around me,” he says.

He became passionate about bringing people together to develop cultural understandings after meeting Fethullah Gülen, the Turkish Muslim scholar who is the honorary president of the Niagara Foundation. Gülen’s philosophies “changed the direction in my life,” Cinar says.

Seven years ago, Cinar went to work for the foundation to foster the unity he seeks for others. Today, he plans the foundation’s strategy and events, including dinners where speakers share information on the Abrahamic faith traditions.

The speakers highlight “that we have a lot more similarities than differences whether that’s family values or religious education or charity work,” Cinar says. But the meals can be tricky to pull off: the Niagara Foundation must be sure to serve food that accommodates all faiths. So Kosher food, which most cultures can eat together, is often on the menu, he says.

In addition to his work with the foundation, Cinar has also pursued his love of education. After earning a bachelor’s degree from Strayer University in 2006 and a master of public administration from Roosevelt University in 2012, he is currently working toward a master of liberal arts in international relations from Harvard University and a graduate degree at the American Islamic College.

“The world is dynamic and ever-changing,” says Cinar, “and the only way to keep up with those changes is through education.

“We should always be educating ourselves through books, through contemplation and through traditional and unconventional methods,” he says. “These educational institutions, they push you and keep you on track and keep you disciplined.”