On America’s 237th birthday, it was fitting that 51 people from 26 countries experienced a rebirth of sorts on Thursday, becoming U.S. citizens at the World War II Museum.
There were tears of joy and constant flag-waving during the 45-minute ceremony, as the newest Americans sang “The Star-Spangled Banner” and “God Bless the USA” and offered the Pledge of Allegiance.
It finished with applause, a few hugs and plenty of picture-taking as each participant walked up to the podium to accept a certificate which proved he or she had finished the required steps to become a citizen.
“I feel happy; this is a dream come true,” said Chukwudumbi Mokogwu, 45, of Baton Rouge, who moved to America in 2005 with her husband, Odigwe.
“This is a historic day for me,” Mokogwu said. “The Fourth of July, the day that Americans celebrate their independence. From now on, wherever I go or work in America, I don’t have to carry my green card any longer. … This is remarkable to me.”
Going through naturalization is a long, arduous process and those granted citizenship Thursday were relieved it was over. Requirements include residing in the country for a minimum of five continuous years, a multitude of paperwork, tests and interviews. And for those who didn’t speak English, they must have a “basic” knowledge of the language.
There are other barriers, for some, as well.
Among the nationalities of those becoming citizens included countries that aren’t exactly friendly to the United States. And some fear they bring a stigma with them that won’t go away with a piece of fancy paper they received from the government.
Although “today is one of the biggest days of my life, and I am so glad the greatest country adopts some people like me,” living in America isn’t always easy for Katayon Ebrahimpour, of Iran. She knows what some think of her country, and said it has presented problems at different times of her life.
A most recent incident included being stopped at Louis Armstrong International Airport, while security double- and triple-checked her information and every piece of her luggage.
While she understands why it was necessary, holding up the flight for 45 minutes wasn’t exactly popular with the other passengers.
“Sometimes it is tough for me,” Ebrahimpour said. “Not all Americans know exactly about my country; they just know what they hear on TV. … People have to understand that there are two parts to Iran: the government and the people. We have a situation there where people don’t have rights, and whatever happened in Iran, the people didn’t choose it.”
Ebrahimpour, 40, came to the U.S. five years ago with her husband, who already was an American citizen. She knew no English before arriving and says that was the toughest part of adjusting initially.
“We have a different alphabet; we don’t use English words,” she said. “I learn language here, but sometimes I pronounce things wrong. I don’t always use the right words to explain, but I am trying.”
Bill Detweiler, consultant to the museum and veteran of the U.S. Army, was proud to be a part of what he described as a “very moving” ceremony. Overall, for him, seeing the looks on the faces and the actions of those being naturalized was something he won’t soon forget.
“Did you see the gentleman who knelt on the ground and kissed the flag?” Detweiler asked. “Our mission here is tell the experience of World War II, and in teaching that we want to tell those of future generations the sacrifice and the courage it took of Americans and our allies to fight the war. In telling that story, these people are benefitting from the freedoms those people protected, that they fought and died for.”
Those celebrating their newly found freedom were of all ages and came from many different backgrounds and cultures. One of the newest citizens is a 94-year-old woman from Vietnam, who moved to New Orleans to live with her Vietnamese-American family and her only child, daughter Anh Dao.
“She is very grateful for this day and very proud to live in the USA,” said Dao, who moved to the U.S. in 1979.
“We came here for our children, and we prayed we could move my mom here so we could take good care of her. My family told her that she is lucky for this to happen on the best day of the year.
“This country is wonderful,” Dao continued. “We have our freedom, and my children received a great education. We have a good life here, and we try to work hard.”
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