Personal Essay

By Goksel Ziam
Mattituck High School

2019 Anne Mackay Scholarship Winner Goksel Ziam

There are few countries in this world that have been founded on the idea of beliefs rather than ethnicity. America, the longest stewing melting pot in history, has proven that embracing multiculturalism can be a strength. Even though America has seen, and continues to see, its fair share of ethnic tension and inequality, those times when this country stayed true to its beliefs of tolerance and inclusion have been its strongest and its best. I, as an immigrant to this country, have worked tirelessly to preach the importance of tolerance, and encourage inclusion through the best way I know how, education.

I arrived in America nine years ago to help my dad who had been living alone for more than 10 years. My sister eventually came over after graduating from college, which was coincidentally when I was just starting high school. Since then, we’ve been fighting complications in immigration law to bring my mother to the States and complete the family. This personal experience of facing all the challenges of immigration as a teen, from the bullying to the outright racism, is the primary reason why I’m so passionate about the subjects that nfwfwf represents.

Immediately after I arrived in the summer, my father started taking me to work at the Mattituck BP gas station where he worked. At this station, I had the chance to interact with a slew of diverse people, which helped me better adjust to the new country I found myself in. One group of people that I had the opportunity to become very close with at the gas station was my local Hispanic community. Most of the regular Hispanic customers, also immigrants, saw me grow up from a chubby nine year-old to an acne-riddled yet still quite stunningly handsome teen. What I didn’t realize is that some of these customers, which I had come to regard as friends, saw me as a role-model. I was able to be a successful student, and completely adjust to the culture, which appealed to many parents who were nervous about raising a family in a different country.

One example, who I don’t want to give away the name of, so let’s call him David, came from Guatemala to come live with his uncle. Like many immigrants, David’s family believed that he would have a better education and more opportunities to succeed in America than he did at home. However, his uncle, who was himself a recent immigrant who spoke very little English, didn’t know how to sign up his nephew for school. So he came to the gas station, knowing my father faced the same challenge with me. With the little bit of Spanish I could speak, I told him that we could sign David up for school together. David’s uncle agreed and we went to the high school and registered David as an eighth grade student. Since then, David and I have become close friends; he has helped me improve my Spanish and I’ve helped him with the same ESL course I had to take in elementary school. Since signing David up for school, other customers have come to me with questions about school, ESL, and college. The help wasn’t only one way however, the recent consulting I’ve been doing has allowed me to greatly improve my Spanish. David is one of several Hispanic immigrant students who has enrolled in my school over the past six years, one of the many students who take the same classes, play the same sports, and join the same clubs, as the non-immigrant kids. I believe the inclusion of these new students into the system is the reason that there have been so few cases of actual bullying. The best way to combat hate is through education and love, and by supporting dialogue and friendship between the new immigrant and non-immigrant students, the school has let love and tolerance claim its rightful victory.

I’ve fought for the effective inclusion of Hispanic students in school life, however, another more personal battle I’ve had to fight is the inclusion of me. I moved to this country from Turkey, and my family is Muslim. Thankfully, due to the lack of knowledge among Americans about Turkey, and due to my skin color being fairly white, I haven’t faced much direct bullying. However, there have been several times where I’ve been signaled out, called a terrorist, and been the butt of an offensive joke. I played most of these attacks off through humor, and if it was more serious, through actual debates and arguments. When the bullying was serious enough to call for debate, I realized the amount of misinformation about Islam and Muslim countries around the world that many of my peers had. Once again, I realized that the best way to combat this type of hate would be through education. I started to become more open about my religious identity, and more people started learning that I was actually Muslim. My hope was that people could say they know a Muslim person, and understand that he’s pretty normal, and hopefully even a little cool, so that filter of fear could be lifted. I believe that putting myself out there more and being more open about my identity has been pretty effective.

Even though I never expected my efforts to get any larger, one day my former world history teacher came over and asked me to come to his freshman class and demonstrate Islamic prayer, since they were doing a unit on Islam. The same teacher had made this offer to me in sophomore year, but my family was nervous about letting me accept the offer. However, this time around, I was determined to do the demonstration; especially because of a tragedy that took place shortly after my teacher made the offer. The New Zealand mosque shootings came as a shock to most of the world, especially due to the violence used. However, to me, the shootings were a finale of the buildup of intolerance that has repeatedly showed itself even in this country So I decided that I wouldn’t back down from expressing who I am, my background, or my culture, just because one psychopath wanted to scare people like me.. The next week I didn’t just demonstrate Islamic prayer, but I discussed many parts of the Islamic religion, and presented the contrast between the actual teachings of Islam, and the extremely few who covert those teachings to suit their plans.

The Force of hate is very hard to overcome, and very easy to harbor. However, as Americans, we are no strangers to adversity. The future of America is more diverse than ever before, and the only way to move forward will be through the effective education of each other, and a better understanding that Americans are defined neither by race nor ethnicity, but instead by the ideas and beliefs that they hold true.