The proudest day in my life was the day I became an American citizen. Leading to that day was a long road of hard work, uncertainty, and hope. Hope that some day my children, as well as my parents would be free to work, to travel, to speak their minds, and to choose and follow their beliefs.
That hope, that dream was worth the sacrifices I've made as the first immigrant in my family.
While completing my graduate studies in France, I was asked how could I have left my country and my people. Why did I do it? The answer was simple: so that my children wouldn't have to.
My childhood memories are filled with good family times, warm Ukrainian summers, and great books. I am gifted, as most of us are, with selective memory that sorts the good from the bad, fading the latter into the "I don't remember that" category.
There was a time, however, when I realized very clearly that living in Soviet Ukraine implied following rules that didn't make sense to me and that limited personal freedom and insulted people's intelligence.
My adopted country, the United States of America, gave me every opportunity, every chance, and every promise that my native country, the Ukraine, failed to provide. For that I will be forever grateful.
I remember the day I received my naturalization certificate – a green sheet of paper stating that I had renounced my allegiance to a foreign land and had become an American citizen.
It was a special day, the details of which I will always treasure. But it wasn't until I traveled for the first time with my new blue passport that I truly experienced the dignity it afforded.
I was coming home from a trip to Europe. Upon arrival at JFK Airport in New York, the passengers were instructed to follow signs to customs.
As we followed long corridors filled with fluorescent lights, I held my newly acquired passport tightly.
We reached a large room with small booths housing the immigration officers. Mentally I prepared to be interrogated, to answer inquisitive questions about where I've been and why.
On my last trip to Ukraine, an immigration official there sized me up, and with a crooked smile gave me an insincere compliment. "You look very excellent," he said in broken English. Then he proceeded to ask me where I traveled to, who I stayed with and how I was able to afford an international trip.
Knowing that he had the power to apply or deny the entrance stamp in his hand that was hovering over my passport, he asked me out on a date. Realizing that my trip depended on his whim, I said yes. He stamped the passport.
Now, entering the United States as a new citizen, I didn't know what to expect.
Two lines quickly formed in the room: US citizens to the right, citizens of other countries to the left. I noticed that the line on the right side of the room was much shorter and was moving faster.
As I approached a booth, a woman dressed in a navy blue uniform looked up at me and took my passport.
"Good morning," I said.
"Good morning," she replied, flipping through the pages. I realized my palms were sweating. She scanned the last page of my passport, looked at my picture, and then looked up again. "Welcome home, Miss Chmareva," she said as she placed my passport back on the counter.
No words ever sounded sweeter. "Welcome home." For the past 10 years, as I was struggling to get my citizenship, that is exactly what I felt in my heart – I was home.
In that moment at the airport, I felt I was accepted where I always felt I belonged – in a country that stood by its citizens, treated them with respect and dignity, and that offered and delivered opportunities.
Now my son will be the firstborn American citizen on my side of the family. Someday I will take him to Ukraine. I will show him the beautiful cobblestone streets of Kiev, my native city. I will make sure he knows Ukrainian literature and the country's rich history. He will meet the wonderful, loving people of my childhood.
And I will remind my son that, while he has Ukrainian and Italian roots, it is the United States that deservedly became his home.