For newest US citizens, America is about hope, not fear

The mood of a US naturalization ceremony in New York, on World Refugee Day, stands in contrast to political and media rhetoric that has emphasized fear, frustration, and wariness of refugees.

Kathy Willens/AP
Fariatou Abdoul (l.) is among 19 new US citizens who wave flags and celebrate on stage after a naturalization ceremony on World Refugee Day at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park, New York, Monday.

Fariatou Abdoul, “a Muslim 100 percent, born and raised,” is beaming on a famous stage in Central Park, wearing a traditional, pink-patterned headscarf and holding a small American flag. She’s been smiling so much tonight, in fact, her cheeks hurt.

A decade ago, she fled her war-torn African homeland, Ivory Coast, finding refuge in the United States with her husband and brother before settling in the Bronx. And tonight, pregnant with her first child, she’s about to say the oath to become a US citizen.

“I’m so, so happy about that, so happy to be an American citizen,” says Ms. Abdoul, just before joining 18 other former refugees and asylees from around the world to be sworn in by US Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson. “It’s been so good for me here, and I want to do everything the right way.”

The special swearing in ceremony on Monday was part of a celebration of World Refugee Day at the Delecorte Theater here in Manhattan’s landmark park, an event that included a number of dramatic readings from celebrity actors and authors on the open-air stage.

The words and emotions on display here posed a sharp contrast with views on immigration that have gained publicity over the past year – notably rising concerns in the US and Europe that Islamic immigrants are a security risk, and the slogan of the Republican Party’s presumptive presidential nominee that America needs to be made “great again.”

The optimism voiced by these migrants-turned-citizens is something the country needs right now, says Sen. Tim Kaine (D) of Virginia, discussing the political climate engulfing the country.

“There’s also some darker emotions, there’s some negative and divisive emotions out there,” Senator Kaine told the Monitor in a May interview. “The whole ‘make America great again.’ What, you don’t think this is a great nation? Let me take you to the naturalization service, let me take you there and watch all these people trade in their passport of origin to become a citizen of the United States, and at many naturalization services, [where] they have an open mike, where people explain why.”

'A better opportunity'

Indeed, Oumar Dabo was 10 years old when his family fled Conakry, Guinea, in 1999. “America is great, and I’ve been here so long now,”  he says, when asked about how he feels as he’s about to become a US citizen.

“To come to America is basically for a better opportunity,” says Mr. Dabo, who is just about to receive his associate's degree from Bronx Community College. He is also working now as a direct support professional at Richmond Community Services in New York, caring for people with developmental disabilities.

“That’s the main reason we came, after so many problems,” he continues. “Over here, you can get a better education, a better job.” And he remembers, too, the corporal punishments he received as a kid in Guinea, where a wrong answer often meant a beating, he says. He’s hoping to go on to get a bachelor’s degree in business, though he may apply for a job with the New York Fire Department or transportation authority.  

This is an evening of smiles and laughter, family hugs and head-crowding selfies.

Yes, it comes as politicians, including Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, are expressing the fear that Islamic extremists or would-be terrorists will slip in.

But the event organizers emphasize the resilience of immigrants like those swearing allegiance to the US Constitution this night, most who fled violence a decade ago and persevered through a years-long process to just make it here, let alone to become some of the few to become citizens.  

Role of refugees 

“Resettling refugees is not only the right thing to do, it’s also an American success story,” says David Miliband, president and CEO of the International Rescue Committee, which co-hosted the event with The Public Theater in New York. “Those who have known the denial of freedom have a special reason to treasure it when they are able to taste it.”

“Now, more than ever, in the midst of this presidential election campaign, it’s important to explain who refugees are, why they are here, and why America has a very special vocation to provide an example of what it means to be a shining light, a shining city upon a hill,” continues Mr. Miliband, whose humanitarian relief organization, first spearheaded by Albert Einstein in the 1940s, will help the US government resettle around 12,500 refugees this year.

Later in the evening, Kwame Kwei-Armah, a British actor and playwright, reads a selection from the 1630 sermon, preached by Puritan leader John Winthrop to a group of shivering immigrants on their cross-Atlantic voyage, about the new “shining city” they would build – a phrase made famous in the modern era by Ronald Reagan.

'God bless America'

Leke Kalaj, an immigrant who fled Albania in 2001, practically leaps from his chair when his name is called to receive his citizenship certificate. He is perhaps the most visibly moved and excited to shake Secretary Johnson’s hand after the swearing in.

“Oh, my first day of my life, this first day, a very, very special day for me,” says the supermarket cook and Bronx resident afterward, posing for photos with his daughters Marsela and Juli. “I am 60 years old, and I’m very, very happy. I’m with familia, and with everybody, every Albanian here, in this country,” he adds with emphasis. “God bless America!”

The ceremony also included the Academy Award winning actor F. Murray Abraham, who read an excerpt by William Shakespeare from “Sir Thomas More,” and children from local New York public schools, who recited Emma Lazarus’s famous 1883 “send me your huddled masses” poem, inscribed on bronze plaque at the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty.

The writer Salman Rushdie also read an excerpt from Albert Einstein’s 1941 letter to Eleanor Roosevelt, which urged her to find ways to get the US State Department to take in refugees fleeing fascist terror. In 1989, Mr. Rushdie was forced to live in hiding after Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the supreme leader of Iran at the time, called for his assassination, deeming Rushdie’s novel, “The Satanic Verses,” a blasphemy against Islam.

“I know what it is to migrate,” he told the audience of about 1,000 on Monday. “I’ve always believed, and tried to write about it, that migration enriches the culture to which the migrants come. And I think really that’s the meaning to me of New York City,” his home for the past 16 years.

Afterward, Mr. Rushdie walked alone in Central Park, making his way after sunset through the park’s tree-lined paths.

But the emphasis all evening was on the refugees who had come as many American immigrants before. The American actor Omar Metwally read from one of the letters other immigrants had written for the event, this one from a Somali immigrant named Muhammad, now a translator for the International Rescue Committee and living in Wichita, Kan.

“What I miss is home. I miss the environment, the people, my cousins, family and friends,” Mr. Metwally read on behalf of Muhammad. “I love them, I can’t take them from my heart.  I miss the food, the mangos, the bananas – I really miss that…”

But Muhammad came to the US because “my home, my country, the country I was born in, it didn’t give me a chance to show my ability, how I can help my people,” he wrote. “But I thought America could give me a second chance in life. And it did. I came here, and I have a lot of everything. And I completely have built a home in America, right now. And this is what I call my home, right now.”

Staff writer Francine Kiefer contributed to this story from Washington.

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