When he was in fourth grade, Goksel Zaim came to the United States from northern Turkey, moving into a house in Mattituck with his father and a group of fellow immigrants. On his first day of school, he didn’t know anyone or speak English, aside from basic greetings like “Hi” and “How are you?”
But that didn’t last long.
Within six months, Zaim became fluent in English and fast friends with his classmates. He went on to become a high honor roll student and a member of the student council.
And on Friday night, Zaim, 16, a junior, was the second runner-up for prom king at Hyatt Place Long Island in Riverhead, where Mattituck Junior-Senior High School’s 11th- and 12th-graders got together for fine dining in fancy clothes, camaraderie and a whole lot of dancing.
“In Turkey, people only really see proms like this in American movies that they watch, so I think this is really cool,” Zaim said with a laugh.
In the venue’s large ballroom, the DJ blasted early-2000s hits and students crowded around the speakers, bouncing, twirling and singing along. With roughly 100 students per grade in the high school, Zaim said, “what I really like about this school is that because it’s small, everybody knows each other so well and gets along together. Our class has a real bond."
While returning to Mattituck from Turkey last summer — an annual trip Zaim takes to visit his mother, who still lives there — he said the United States meant something different to him this time.
“Usually when I go to Turkey, I consider that going home. But last summer is when I first felt like when I was coming back here that I was actually coming home,” he said. “It’s a good feeling.”
Junior class president Julie Seifert, 16, who is on student council with Zaim and was on the prom planning committee this year, called him “the nicest, quirkiest, funniest guy ever” and one of her closest friends.
“He just adapted so well and his quick progress when he came here astonished me,” Seifert said. “He’s made so many friends and he’s in clubs, does a bunch of extracurricular activities — he’s just really outgoing. I think it speaks to the sense of family here. We have a different vibe from other high schools. Here, everyone is brought to the table, everyone knows each other and it’s just one big family. We all just love each other.”
Fellow junior Ryan Mahon said, “In fourth grade, I met him on the playground. He didn’t know anybody or a word of English, really. I went up to him and introduced myself and we played tag together. The kid is great and such a hard worker.”
Looking ahead to next year, Zaim plans to continue a fundraising effort he started with his older sister, who came to the United States three years ago. Together, they raise the costs to send donated school supplies and shoes to Turkish schools. He has already placed donation boxes at Mattituck, as well as high schools in Greenport and Southold, and collected some supplies.
Zaim also hopes that he and his family will be able to bring his mother to the United States within the next year — “hopefully by graduation,” he said.
But Friday night he was focused on having a good time with his friends. “I asked some of the students why they voted for me [for prom king], and they said I was always happy,” Zaim said with a big smile.