Hacibey Catalbasoglu, an Alder for the city of New Haven and a junior at Yale University, visited campus on Tuesday, April 24 to discuss his upbringing, his journey into politics, and his experiences as a Muslim politician.
Catalbasoglu began his lecture by describing his father’s childhood in a small Turkish village. While Catalbasoglu’s father wanted to live in America, the Turkish government had restricted access to immigration visas. After failed attempts to enter the country indirectly through Germany and an apprehension by Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, he was imprisoned in Venezuela for three months. However, after his father made it out, he successfully crossed the border and joined his extended family living in New Haven.
There, his father opened the now-classic Pizza at the Brick Oven, where Catalbasoglu had some of his most influential life experiences.
“It was formative in that it taught me how to break down my barriers and get out of my comfort zone,” he said. “It taught me to take risks. It taught me how to meet people.”
Catalbasoglu also described a less positive experience that ultimately shaped his future. When Catalbasoglu pointed out a Shop and Save after a Yale student asked him if there were any good grocery stores nearby, he was astounded when the student told him that Yale discouraged students from traveling to that neighborhood. That was where he grew up and where all of his friends lived.
“How could a university in an environment such as New Haven create a relationship where even the people of that entity were afraid to go to a place where children like I grew up in?” Catalbasoglu asked.
After that experience, and other indications of New Haven’s rocky relationship with the Yale students, Catalbasoglu decided he wanted to do something. He got into politics.
Catalbasoglu said he wanted the audience to leave with two core lessons. The first, which Catalbasoglu said he has encountered through errors in politics, was to be genuine, no matter the circumstances or the potential political gain. When he put aside optics and focused on his duties as a representative, he found it came naturally.
“Because it was so real, it was so easy to do,” Catalbasoglu said. “Whereas if I talked about something I didn’t necessarily believe in, people could see it.”
The second was for students to seize any opportunities available like he did when running for office at the young age of 20.
“You’ve got to takes risks.,” he said. “If there is any time to take risks, it’s now. Each and every day after this talk the stakes will be higher—you’ll have more to lose.”
In the Q&A session, Melisa Olgun ’20 asked how his Muslim identity factored into his role as a politician.
Catalbasoglu responded that its relevance was tied to his message of being genuine. If people think their Muslim faith is important to them then, he suggests they follow through on that because being genuine comes with its benefits. Catalbasoglu also said that while the contemporary political era may look daunting for Muslims now, he is confident that change will come.
“I think it’s easier to get involved in local politics than people think it is,” Faizan Razak ’20, a board member for the Wesleyan Democrats, said after the event. “And you can affect change even if you’re a student. If someone at an elite university has the time to make a difference in their community, then all of us do, too.”
Mason Mandell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @MasonMandell.