By Aysel Basci 

From time to time, when I look back on my life and ask myself what my happiest memories are, as some of us over 60 are in the habit of doing, June 6, 2004 stands out as a very special day. That was the day my daughter Deniz graduated from high school in the Maryland suburb of Washington DC, where we currently live and have been living for over 40 years. I do not remember a time when I felt more proud or happier than June 2004. For a few days, while the graduation ceremonies were taking place, I was simply on top of the world. I have always appreciated living in the United States and enjoying all it has to offer, especially the freedom, equality, and acceptance that are sadly hard to find in some other parts of the world. But in June 2004, my appreciation for living in America and being a naturalized American citizen hit a new high.

My daughter, our only child, attended the Holton-Arms School in Bethesda for 10 years (from 3rd grade to the 12th grade) and she loved it. My husband and I loved the school too. How can I describe Holton? Words are not enough to adequately do justice to this special place. It is warm, friendly, nurturing, academically serious, athletically and artistically competitive, and much more. I have many fond memories of Holton, but perhaps the most memorable is the school head, Mrs. Bebe, standing at the school entrance every morning, greeting the students with a smile as their parents dropped them off. She would hold her coffee mug in one hand and hug the girls as they entered the building, then exchange pleasantries with the parents. This happened every day, rain or shine, and even on snowy days. What a comfort it was to see Mrs. Bebe there every morning all those years.

The 10 years went by very quickly and it was time for Deniz’s graduation from Holton. Our family’s excitement hit fever pitch when we received an email from Holton a few days before Class Day and the Commencement, informing us that Deniz would be receiving an award, and we were invited to witness the event. We were told not to share this with Deniz as it was supposed to be a surprise. What a nice touch.

Finally, Class Day arrived and it was a beautiful day. As a time-honored tradition at Holton, a huge tent was erected on the school grounds, and the graduating class, about 75 girls, sat in neat rows under the tent – both for the Class Day and for the Commencement. The parents and other guests would sit on wooden benches across from the tent, with a good view of both the tent and the podium from which the speeches would be made and the awards and diplomas given. The teachers and honorary guests would sit behind the podium and they too had a good view of the graduating class under the tent. These special events were planned and organized to perfection every year at Holton.

After spending 10 years together, we knew all the graduating girls and their families quite well. It was almost like a family affair. We were enjoying the ceremony and feeling happy for the girls receiving various awards for their respective achievements. As time passed, we also wondered what type of award Deniz might receive. We were quite certain it would have to be in either theatrical acting or in music. During her 10 years at Holton, Deniz had done a lot in those two disciplines and she must have distinguished herself. That was our thinking.

While watching the ceremony that day, I could not help but remember my own graduation from high school in Nicosia, Cyprus back in 1973. I was born and lived the first 19 years of my life in Cyprus. There was a stark contrast between the two graduations. This was a happy event. All the graduating girls knew what they were going to do next. There were no dark clouds hanging over anyone’s head. However, in my case back in 1973, there was no certainty from one day to the next. Nothing could be taken for granted. Political hostilities could break out afresh at any given time, and we could not assume we would be all right from one day to the next. We lived in constant fear for our lives and had to take it one day at a time – pretty much everything was up in the air.

In fact, as we had feared, a new war did break out in 1974, a year after I graduated from high school, and I barely survived it. The terror of those nights ducking bullets in a house that was constantly under fire, and the fear that we would never get out of there alive, remain deeply embedded in my mind. How can I forget the pain I felt in the aftermath of that war, when I did not know whether I would manage to get out of Cyprus and continue with my education or not? There were times when I thought all hope was lost; that it was the end. How I had grieved about such thoughts, so long ago.

Those dark thoughts of 1974 filtered through my mind like a ghostly and surreal apparition of the past as I sat amidst the lash green lawns, newly blooming crape myrtle trees and spectacular looking mixtures of blue and pink hydrangea flowers, on that day in June 2004 years later, watching the Class Day ceremonies. Then I looked at the happy faces of the girls graduating from Holton, including my daughter. These faces were full of positive energy and the endless optimism of youth anticipating the promise of the future. It was such a relief to know these girls were in a much different, a lot happier, place than I had been at my high school graduation. They were Americans, whereas I was born a Cypriot. I did not have any other faults or commit any crimes, but the price I and many others had to pay for being Cypriots was very high indeed. Once again, I rejoiced in the knowledge that my daughter, as an American, would live a safer, happier, and prouder life than I had in my early years.

Getting back to the ceremony, the music award was given to a girl and it was not Deniz. Then, a little later, the theatrical acting award was also given, and that too, was not Deniz. My husband and I were a little puzzled. We could not understand why Deniz did not receive one of those awards – those were her strengths, her comparative advantages. We concluded that the email we had received from Holton indicating that Deniz would be receiving an award on Class Day had been sent by mistake. It was a good thing we had not shared this with Deniz – she would have been disappointed after getting her hopes up.

Then, towards the end of the ceremony, something quite unexpected and extraordinary happened. The principal, Mrs. Bebe, who had been making the announcements and handing out the various academic, athletic, and artistic awards to members of the graduating class, announced that year’s Head’s Award – a prestigious award given by the principal to a student who had excelled in many different areas. That student was none other than Deniz! We could not believe it. The email we had received from Holton turned out to be correct after all. What an honor it was that Deniz was being recognized as an all-around student in this great school by such a great head of school as Mrs. Bebe. We were delighted, very proud, and endlessly appreciative. “This,” I said to my husband, “is America!”

How can I not count those days as among my happiest memories?

After our excitement over Deniz’s award subsided, I could not help but get back to my earlier line of thought. I knew I had come a long way since I was a scared little girl running for her life in Potamia as we became refugees for the first time. No question about it – I have come a long way! More importantly, here in America, there are no dark clouds constantly hanging over my head. I can finally hope. I can finally look forward to a bright and happy future for myself and my immediate family. My only wish is that my family and all the other Cypriots remaining in Cyprus could also experience this wonderful thing called “hope.”

Perhaps, one day…

About the Author:

Aysel K. Basci is a new writer working in nonfiction. She was born in Nicosia, Cyprus and moved to the United States at age 19. She holds a BS from American University and an MS from George Washington University. Before retiring from the World Bank, she traveled and worked extensively in the poorest regions of the world including Sub-Saharan Africa, Central America and South Asia.