When July Fourth rolls around, most of us think about spending time barbequing with our families, or getting a long weekend off from work. It’s less often that we reflect on what it means to be an American.
But for people who have experienced hardships and tribulations in order to become Americans, the day takes on special meaning. The United States is among a small group of countries in the world that grant citizenship to people who were born elsewhere.
According to the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services office, around 680,000 people become naturalized as American citizens annually. Every year, the office also arranges naturalization ceremonies around Independence Day to celebrate the holiday with newly minted Americans. This summer, more than 4,000 citizens will be naturalized in special July Fourth ceremonies across the country.
At a ceremony held in Brooklyn on June 30, Epoch Times spoke with several citizenship candidates about their experiences becoming Americans. Many of them shared that they not only appreciated the economic opportunities in this country, but the freedoms and institutions that allow ordinary people’s voices to be heard. As Edison Zarate, originally from Ecuador, said, “The people, the freedom, the law—everything is straight here.”
Sitting outside the Old Stone House in Washington Park, Park Slope, Brooklyn—the site of the largest battle during the Revolutionary War—each shared a different perspective on what makes being an American so special.
Appreciation for the Generations of Immigrants
Salvatore Malfitano doesn’t really remember a life outside of America. He came to the United States from Sicily, Italy at the age of 5.
His experience growing up in Brooklyn was like most other New Yorkers, living among neighbors from all over the world. Malfitano has witnessed different immigration waves throughout the years: from Eastern Europeans after the collapse of the Soviet Union, to the recent movement of people from Asia and Latin America.
The vibrancy of the city’s diversity exhilarates him. “In New York, you see the evolution of what’s going on in the world, and what [types of] people are laying the foundation for future immigrants,” Malfitano said.
In that vein, too, he thanks the earlier generations of Italian immigrants who paved the way for others like him to become easily accepted into American society. During the 19th century, Italian-Americans were the subject of widespread discrimination and nasty stereotyping.
Malfitano can now embrace his family traditions, while also staying true to his American upbringing. “You can be as Italian as you want to be, or not—as much as your comfort zone wants.”
Above all, he is grateful for the opportunities this country has afforded him and his family. “America is a place where if you work hard, if you want to achieve something, you can achieve that,” he said. “In a lot of other countries, that doesn’t matter much. It matters who you know, who your family is, where you stand in society.”
He is happy to be raising his young daughter as a born-and-bred American. “I don’t think America is a perfect country, but I think it offers a lot more than lots of other places. I feel that if you are responsible and look after your kid, and try to guide them in the right direction, they can achieve great things,” he said.
His hopes for her are simple: “[To] understand the sacrifices of people before her, not to take anything for granted, be ambitious, be a fair person, [and] not to judge people.”
Being American Is Giving Back to Society
Marie L. Andre had been contributing to her community long before she formally became a U.S. citizen. In the 1990s, when Andre first started working at a city hospital as a receptionist, she wanted to interpret for patients who had trouble speaking English.
“I remember when I first came, I didn’t speak the language. I know how hard it is,” said Andre, who is fluent in French and Haitian Creole. As the HIV/AIDS epidemic took over the city, scores of patients came through the hospital seeking answers and treatment.
So Andre decided to take a training course and become a public health adviser. Her task would be to explain the illness to infected patients and link them to health care.
Andre has been doing it ever since. “I like to make the patients feel comfortable. Especially now, it’s no longer a death sentence [to be infected with HIV]. It’s my pleasure to tell them that, and to make sure they get their treatment,” she said.
She also volunteers for breast cancer awareness with the American Cancer Society, and does cleanup work at her neighborhood park. Now that she has received her citizenship, Andre looks forward to her new civic responsibilities in voting and jury duty.
The Rule of Law, Fair and Straight
No matter where you’re from, we’re all in it together. And even when we come from places as far from each other as Honduras and the Ivory Coast, people can share the same wealth of experiences that ultimately make us human.
This is what Felix Okema, a new American citizen, believes makes New York City in particular one of the best places to live in the world. The 38-year-old financial consultant, who first came to the United States 14 years ago from the Ivory Coast in West Africa, said he is grateful for the opportunities he’s had to meet people from all walks of life.
“Being here is almost like traveling all around the world, because you’ll meet people from all corners of the world, and you can share their culture and their experience. You can enrich yourself so much just by living in this city,” said Okema, who works for a community organization on Staten Island.
“I have a co-worker who’s from Honduras, and through our day-to-day conversations, we’ve realized that even though she’s from Honduras and I’m from Africa, we share so much in common,” he said. “And not only with her, but with so many other people—from Pakistan, Afghanistan, United States, you name it. We’re all one people.”
Okema works for a community organization on Staten Island, helping to give people the financial knowledge they need to stay afloat in today’s economy. “I deal with people from all walks of life, from cops to firefighters to school teachers to bodega owners. It’s amazing to realize that no matter where you’re from, we all just go through the same hurdles, the same difficulties.
“So, those who are always preaching our differences and use those against one another—you realize how senseless it is.”
Though he still travels to the Ivory Coast at least once a year to see his family and friends, he said he was inspired to become an American citizen because of the inalienable rights guaranteed here.
“The rule of law and the way the society is run—it’s amazing. Where I’m from, if you have an argument or an issue with somebody, and this person knows the right people, they’ll get away with it, you know?
“But here, I’ve seen that no matter how rich you are, the same law will be applied to you. You can’t use your wealth as a means to crush other people. I know many countries pledge this, but here in America, you actually see it.”
One of the themes throughout the naturalization ceremony was using the right to vote to help make positive change. Okema believes this important right given to every American should not be taken for granted.
“Years ago, when I was working for a company, there was a law that was to be passed that we all opposed. We wrote to your congressional leaders and they answered—they actually answered our letters, and that meant a lot to me.
“Where I’m from, usually when people hold higher offices, they look down on you. You can’t even see them or approach them. Here, you can just walk to your congressional office and speak up, and your voice will be heard.”
The majority of politicians here understand that they should serve the people, he said.
“I’m not saying that it’s perfect and that they don’t have conflicts of interest, but they mainly understand that they are there for the people. And that’s a big thing. That’s something that many people take for granted because they haven’t experienced something else.” I’m not faulting them.
“But it’s a big thing to have someone fighting for you, to have someone actually representing you—carrying your voice. Those are the things that inspired me to want to become part of this great country.”
Now that he’s a citizen, Okema wants to be more active in the community and do things even better than before. While at the ceremony, he made friends with another naturalized citizen, an older woman who shared that she had gone through a difficult time after her son passed away. Okema said he is going to keep in touch with her and cheer her up in any way he can.
“It’s not about how much money we make, it’s how much we impact the lives of others—how we make others’ lives better and how we live in this society. That’s what matters the most.”
Leaving The Past Behind
It was nine long years in the making, but Noor Alzubaidy finally received her U.S. citizenship on June 30.
Accompanied by her mother, who became a citizen before her in 2014, Alzubaidy was composed as she took the oath of allegiance. After the ceremony, the 35-year-old interpreter said she was looking forward to spending the evening at dinner with her mother.
Her father was killed in Iraq, and Alzubaidy herself was injured while working as an interpreter for U.S. forces in 2005. “I had to come here to the States just to save my life,” she said.
Since then, she has not been back to visit. She said she’s happy just to be here and become part of the American community.
“Actually, there’s not much of an Iraqi community here. We’ve gotten more involved with the American community,” she said, adding that she’d had no problems with feeling welcome in her new home.
What she values most about America is the promise of freedom and liberty. “You feel powerful. It’s exciting to be a citizen and to be treated equally.
“It’s more equal here, no matter what your race, religion, or age. That’s the most important thing. It’s the land of opportunity.”
Being Part of Something Great
Marcia Inverary remembers the exact date she came to the United States—Dec. 12, 1994—because it was so exciting and freezing cold.
“I can’t forget that day. I was excited leaving Jamaica and coming to America. Then when I got here, oh my, it was so cold. I was not expecting it like this, because in Jamaica, we have a warm climate all year round. I did not go outside for like a month, two months. Then the first time I went out in the snow, I fell!”
Despite the frigid introduction, New York soon became Inverary’s real home. The 39-year-old nursing assistant said though she travels back to Jamaica frequently, and still loves her original country, she is happiest when she’s right here in Brooklyn.
“I love New York. I would not trade New York—especially Brooklyn—for any other place. I like to go out and experience new things, but I always want to come back to Brooklyn. You can find anything and everything here. I can even get a lot of stuff from Jamaica here in Brooklyn.”
For Inverary, attending the June 30 ceremony was a relief, since she was the last person in her household to apply for citizenship. “My kids are all American citizens, my brother’s an American citizen. Actually, I was here before him, but he was an American citizen before me! So he always puts in my face, ‘When are you going for your citizenship?’ Everyone encouraged me a lot.
“The day when I went for the interview, we all were so excited. I’m very happy that I did it.”
Inverary said she’s looking forward to exercising her right to vote and even serving on a jury. Before, she had had the frustrating experience of not being able to do things the rest of her family could.
“Especially when I used to see people going out to vote, and I wasn’t able to, I wished I could do it. Every time when we were coming back from Jamaica, I got separated from everyone [into a different line]. It wasn’t a good feeling. I said, ‘The next time I go back to Jamaica, I’m going to be an American citizen.'”
Like other attendees at the ceremony, Inverary is acutely aware of the privilege and opportunities that come with being American. She looks forward to making a positive difference and to making sure her five children have a great life and a good education in “the land of opportunity.”
“I am proud to be an American because America is a strong country. Everywhere else depends on America for help. And if I could reach out to help in any way possible, I’d be glad and happy to do so. I’m proud to be part of something that is great.”
Never Alone in New York
Whenever Oriana Sanchez leaves the city, she misses the great hodgepodge of people and cultures around her. “Being in a city like this makes you feel less alone, knowing that I’m not the only one here who’s different. Everybody here is from different places in the world.”
She didn’t always feel that way. When Sanchez first came to the United States at 13 years old, she often got lost on the subway, or in school trying to find her next classroom. It was tough starting a new life in this unfamiliar place.
But she has now embraced her new country. It was here that she was introduced to ideas of social justice, learning about racial disparities in American society, and doing advocacy work for new immigrants.
“These are things I didn’t see or talk about back home [in Colombia],” Sanchez said.
Now, Sanchez’s true home is America. She first realized this when she visited Colombia in 2012. “You feel like, I don’t really belong anymore,” she said. “I think going back and coming back here, it really opened my eyes.”
Sanchez is proudest of her country’s diversity. “It’s being part of this fabric that’s interwoven by everyone in the world. It’s so great to be part of that,” she said.