From Turkey to Southold in pursuit of the American Dream

At this point, Harun Ilgin joked, he’s gone by the nickname Billy longer than he has by his given name.

“Twenty-one years Harun, 31 years Billy,” the manager of Southold’s Wayside Market said recently with a laugh and good-natured shake of the head. “I guess it’s Billy more than Harun, right?” 

Such equanimity is typical of Mr. Ilgin, who was born in Turkey and lives in Southold with his wife, Yeliz, and their four children. A man whose brown eyes crinkle when he smiles, the 52-year-old is the rare individual for whom adjectives like “jolly” are wholly appropriate.

His character, coworker Brian Pressler said, can be summed up in just eight words.

“Billy is just an all-around good guy,” he said.

Mr. Ilgin was born in Çorum, a region of central Turkey whose human history dates to the Paleolithic period. When he was 6 years old, his father died suddenly from a brain aneurysm, leaving his mother, Fatma, a 30-year-old widow with five children to support.

To make ends meet, Mr. Ilgin said, his mother got a job on a farm, working from sunrise to sunset to earn just $10 a day.

“We were poor,” he said.

Determined to create a more prosperous life for himself, Mr. Ilgin immigrated to the United States in 1985 at age 21. He settled on the North Fork, where he was hired as an attendant at a relative’s business, the Empire gas station in Laurel.

One day, a young woman who was presumably attracted to Mr. Ilgin asked another station employee for his name. At the time, Mr. Ilgin spoke little English.

“And she said, ‘Harun?’ She had never heard a Turkish name before,” Mr. Ilgin recalled.

During the encounter, Mr. Ilgin’s coworker suggested giving him an American nickname.

“One of the guys says, ‘Can’t we call him Billy?’” he said. “He looks like my cousin Billy.”

By 1999, Mr. Ilgin had left his job at the gas station to work as a cashier at the 7-Eleven in Mastic. The North Fork, however, had not forgotten him.

One day, Pasquale “P.T.” Rutigliano, owner of Wayside Market, dropped by the convenience store with a proposition for Mr. Ilgin, who used to pump his gas.

“He said, ‘Come work for me,’” Mr. Ilgin recalled with a chuckle. “So that was it.”

In reality, Mr. Rutigliano said, it took nearly 18 months to persuade Mr. Ilgin to join him at his Southold deli and butcher shop.

“He said, ‘I don’t know how to make sandwiches,’” Mr. Rutigliano recalled. “I said, ‘We’ll teach you to make sandwiches.’”

As a Muslim who doesn’t eat pork, Mr. Ilgin had never even seen ham, let alone used it to prepare a hero. In fact, he was shocked to learn one business could offer so many different varieties of meat. Nonetheless, he quickly got the hang of his new job, which regularly requires 60-hour weeks during the busy summer season. About five years later, he was elevated to manager.

“I do everything,” Mr. Ilgin said. “I’m ordering stuff and doing bookkeeping and cooking orders. You name it, I do it.”

“He’ll do the job to the best of his ability,” Mr. Rutigliano added. “A lot of people don’t have that kind of work ethic anymore.”

Although he was happy at Wayside Market, Mr. Ilgin felt incomplete in the early 2000s. That’s because he had become an American citizen but his wife and eldest sons, Muhammet and Yunus, were still living in Turkey.

At Mr. Rutigiliano’s urging, he started the process to bring his family to the United States. Then Sept. 11 happened.

As terrorism concerns skyrocketed, Mr. Ilgin’s effort to reunite his family came to a standstill. Suddenly, he said, he was being forced to fill out the same form every month “for a couple years.”

“Plus, people give you a hard time because your son’s name is Muhammet,” he said. “I say, ‘I don’t care. I’m not gonna change it.’”

Even Mr. Ilgin’s relatives urged him to make himself look more “American.”

“My cousin used to say, ‘Uncle! Why don’t you cut your moustache? You look like a terrorist!’” he said. “I say, ‘I’m not cutting my mustache because I’m not them. I’m an American citizen.’”

Harun 'Billy' Ilgin where you've probably seen him before, behind the counter at Wayside Market, where he always has a smile. (Credit: Krysten Massa photos)
Harun ‘Billy’ Ilgin where you’ve probably seen him before, behind the counter at Wayside Market, where he always has a smile. (Credit: Krysten Massa photos)

Mr. Ilgin was strong-willed, but the pain of missing his wife and young sons was unbearable. Many nights, he said, he would lie awake at 3 a.m. wondering why they weren’t there.

When he woke up crying one day, Mr. Ilgin decided he was finished trying to bring his wife and children to the U.S. He went to work and told Mr. Rutigliano he was moving back to Turkey permanently.

His boss wouldn’t hear of it.

“P.T. says, ‘You’re not going anywhere. You’re an American citizen,’” Mr. Ilgin said.

The reminder was enough to change his mind.

“That was it,” he said. “I listened.”

Muhammet Ilgin, now 21 and a senior international law major at St. John’s University in Queens, called the period “a really frustrating time.”

“[My dad] was an American citizen,” said Muhammet, whose brother Yunus, 19, is a student at New York City’s Lincoln Tech. “He pays his taxes. He did all the right paperwork. And they were just giving us so much trouble because we are from a Muslim country, even though Turkey is one of the United States’ biggest allies. It just never made sense to us.”

Growing up, Muhammet saw his father only twice a year for two weeks at a time. Even so, he said, “He still managed to teach us a lot of things. He was one of the best teachers I’ve ever had in my life.”

In 2008, Mr. Ilgin’s family was finally permitted to join him on the North Fork. Soon after, they added two more children to their brood: son Sabri, now 7, and daughter Esma, 5.

These days, providing for his family is more important than ever. When he isn’t working, Mr. Ilgin is busy taking his younger kids shopping at Target or for the occasional dinner out.

“Sometimes customers say, ‘Billy, how do you do it? Do you have a life?’” Mr. Ilgin said. “I say, ‘Yes, my kids are my life.’ A lot of people don’t understand. A lot of American kids have no idea how lucky they are.”

The average Wayside Market customer, of course, wouldn’t know that Mr. Ilgin has ever faced adversity. He’s friendly to a fault, even when faced with the occasional rude customer.

“You know, a lot of people ask me why [I’m so nice],” he said. “My mom used to say, ‘Listen, be nice to people — it doesn’t hurt anything.’ Even if people scream at you, you say, ‘Yes ma’am, have a nice day. Then one day they turn around and become your best friend.”

Muhammet, who plans to become an international lawyer in order to help prevent others from experiencing what his family endured, is grateful for the sacrifices his father has made.

“He’s been working hard all his life to make sure we have it all,” he said. “He didn’t do it for himself. He did it for us.”

[email protected]