I came to America for all the cliché reasons.
As a young boy growing up in Istanbul, America had assumed a dreamlike quality for me, culled from the eclectic set of American television shows selected for translation to Turkish. To me, America was Cousin Larry in Perfect Strangers, who takes Balki, his Eastern European cousin, under his wings in his Chicago home where they perform the “dance of joy” to celebrate good fortune. America was the Tanner family in Alf, who provide shelter to a furry extraterrestrial alien with a penchant for eating their cat.
I thought that if America had a place for the likes of Balki and Alf, perhaps it had a place for me, too.
At the age of 17, I bid farewell to my parents and boarded a plane to study astronomy at Cornell University, with the ultimate goal (influenced in no small part by Hollywood movies) of becoming an astronaut. America immediately embraced me like one of its own—despite my thick accent, broken English, skinny European jeans and an embarrassing fondness for Bon Jovi music.
I quickly learned that if you asked for something, and you were willing to work hard for it, America’s better angels delivered. Only a week after my arrival, I landed a pinch-me-now job as an operations team member of the 2003 Mars Exploration Rovers mission. The project, supervised by Cornell astronomy professor Steven Squyres, would send two rovers named Spirit and Opportunity to Mars. America gave a 17-year-old boy from a developing country—who, just a few weeks before, was daydreaming about space from his humble home—the opportunity to plan operations scenarios, design imaging algorithms and help select landing sites on Mars.
I channeled my inner Balki and performed the dance of joy. For me, the hope that America was supposed to represent—its spirit and its opportunity–was no longer an abstract, cliché illusion. In America, if you had the spirit, the opportunity would materialize.
But in a brief, fleeting moment, America’s demons began to emerge.
When the Twin Towers fell on Sept. 11, the ensuing Islamophobia plagued the nation, and Cornell was no exception. Although I was born in a majority-Muslim country, I never considered myself a religious person. Yet I found myself the target of bigoted comments from people I had considered good friends. It was the first time I felt like a minority in America.
Although Sept. 11 revealed America’s Achilles’ heel, America’s better angels had not disappeared. They were simply out-voiced by the loud fear-mongering of their demonic counterparts. But if you knew where to look, angels were everywhere: the firefighter who stormed the Twin Towers never to return home, the Marine on a midnight operation against the Taliban, the ordinary American who resisted the simplistic impulse to paint all Muslims as traitors.
This was the paradox of America: its eternal struggle between its demons and better angels.
I came to realize that America’s strengths were also its weaknesses. The same country that was born of immigrants could turn against refugees with strange speed. The same country that promised life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness could institutionalize slavery and detain Japanese-Americans. The same country founded on the ideal that all men are created equal could deny equality to women and minorities.
I eventually abandoned my pursuit of astronomy in favor of law school, graduated at the top of my class, and clerked on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. I then received an invitation from Chief Justice John Roberts of the U.S. Supreme Court to interview for a highly coveted clerkship in his chambers.
It felt like Muhammad Ali had called me for boxing tips.
At the end of my interview with Chief Justice Roberts, he asked me this question: “What makes you different from all other clerkship applicants?” I replied, “There lived two men in rural Turkey who spent much of their lives in poverty: Osman the bus driver and Şakir the shepherd. Their grandson is sitting here interviewing with the Chief Justice of the United States.”
I didn’t get the clerkship, but I knew America would continue to present opportunities as long as I worked hard. A few years later, I found a dream job in academia, as a law professor teaching constitutional law.
Two weeks ago, after 17 years as an alien in the United States, I finally became a citizen. I took my naturalization oath standing shoulder to shoulder with 25 other men and women from 15 different countries.
Virtually all countries admit immigrants. But few would allow a non-citizen from a minority religion, with no familial or personal connections to anyone of importance, the opportunity to work on a space project, clerk on its federal appellate courts, interview for a prized position with its Chief Justice or teach constitutional law to its citizens.
To be sure, America has real demons that it must continue to confront. They’re not going to go away if we simply ignore them or accept their emergence as a fait accompli. And even if we manage to expel them, they’ll retreat only to emerge stronger for their next battle.
But it’s darkest right before dawn. And without the dark, there is no morning of light. America’s demons keep us on our toes, remind us to appreciate its angels, and ensure that we remain vigilant to fend off future hazards.
Sometimes, the demons will prevail. The dreams will collapse. The hopes will wither. The fear mongers and the demagogues will triumph. But only temporarily. I’m confident that America’s better angels can shake off its less-than-perfect pasts and rally the courage to roar back to life.
I know. For I’ve been personally struck by America’s demons and lifted by her better angels, finally to call it my home.
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