Turkish American women tackle the challenges of government

Woman standing outside building with hands on hips (State Dept./D.A. Peterson)
Naz Durakoğlu, the acting assistant secretary of state for legislative affairs, fosters collaboration between Congress and the State Department. (State Dept./D.A. Peterson)

Turkish American women are helping craft U.S. foreign policy and continuing America’s tradition of relying on the knowledge and experience of its diverse population.

Naz Durakoğlu, born in the United States to Turkish immigrants, and Özge Güzelsu, who immigrated to the United States from Turkey, are two of the Biden administration’s highest-ranking foreign policy officials.

Both women have worked as congressional staffers and now oversee legislative affairs for U.S. government agencies. Durakoğlu is the State Department’s acting assistant secretary of state for legislative affairs, and Güzelsu serves as the Defense Department’s deputy general counsel for legislation.

In their new leadership roles, they foster collaboration between the executive and legislative branches of U.S. government.

“One of the things I feel most grateful about is the fact that I can be a U.S. citizen and be very proud of being a Turkish American, and that doesn’t in any way diminish my ability to do my role and serve the U.S. government,” says Güzelsu, who came to the United States when she was 3 years old.

Durakoğlu relies on her experience working in the U.S. House of Representatives, Senate, and the State Department to strengthen collaboration between the Department and Congress.  “It’s exciting work,” she says. “I am fortunate to have this opportunity.”

Portrait of woman in front of two flags (U.S. Army/Leonard FItzgerald)
Özge Güzelsu, deputy general counsel for legislation at the Defense Department. (U.S. Army/Leonard Fitzgerald)

President Biden has made taking advantage of America’s diversity a top priority. In an executive order on racial equity, issued his first day in office, Biden called equal opportunity “the bedrock of American democracy.” His order calls for a systematic approach to redressing barriers to equity and embedding fairness in government decision-making.

Durakoğlu and Güzelsu are both fluent in Turkish and remain closely connected to their heritage. Born in Istanbul, Güzelsu came with her family to the United States so her father could work as a visiting professor at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut.

Güzelsu still cooks the Turkish dishes she learned from her grandmother during summer vacations in Istanbul and Çeşme. Yet her favorites, like baklava and doner kebab, either are too complicated or don’t taste quite the same.

“You can really only get really good doner kebab in Turkey, or possibly in Berlin,” Güzelsu says. The German city has the largest Turkish population outside of Turkey. Roughly 350,000 Americans of Turkish descent live in the United States, according to the Turkish Coalition of America.

Durakoğlu’s family came to the United States when her mother won a scholarship to study music at the Juilliard School in New York. Durakoğlu’s family is originally from Izmit and Istanbul. They are now mostly in Istanbul, which she visits regularly. When she can’t visit, Durakoğlu enjoys reading and watching movies about Turkey’s deep multicultural history.

“The United States — and other nations, including Turkey — are most successful when they leverage the full diversity of their populations,” Durakoğlu says.

Güzelsu says immigrants and other minority group members bring fresh ideas to the challenges of governing. “We all serve the U.S. democracy much better through our diversity,” she says.