I assisted at a US citizenship oath ceremony last week, held at the District Courthouse in Madison, Wisconsin. By ‘assist’ I mean I crinkle cut vast quantities of veggies and lugged a cooler through courthouse security. No mean feat, actually, as the handle of the cooler wouldn’t fit through the scanner. Therefore, umpteen gallon-size baggies full of carrots, celery, peppers, kale, cucumbers, tomatoes and cauliflower florets had to be hand-screened by three guards wearing earpieces. Can just imagine the conversation with the control room:
‘Sir, she says she cut all these herself using the neighbour’s Pampered Chef crinkle cutter.’
‘No one’s crazy enough to cut that many vegetables by hand.’
‘She’s wearing a wrist brace.’
‘I see. Let her in but keep an eye on her.’
I, of course, had wanted to go all out roast beef, Yorkshire pudding, gravy, trifle, treacle tart and custard. Greater minds prevailed and it was suggested I just go for the veggie platter. Good job, too. Can you imagine the trifle after the hand-screening?
Anyway, security cleared, I waited for the other volunteers to arrive. Soon, stuffed grape leaves, hummus, cheese platters, sheet cake, and baklava were trundling out the back of the security scanner on the conveyer belt. This isn’t what typically comes through the court’s doors. But this ceremony was unique. Open Doors For Refugees – the organization I volunteer with – arranged a special ceremony to be held in Madison. Court officials had to travel from Milwaukee to Madison. The least we could do was feed them.
To be honest, the food was mainly for the oath takers and their families (though we fed everyone – including the security guards). Naturalized citizens – like me – and immigrant organization leaders, including former refugees, provided a welcome lunch for the new citizens once they were sworn in. This is the third year Open Doors For Refugees has held this ceremony in Madison. Apparently, the judges are fighting over who gets to administer the oath. It’s a bright light in what can be a dark world in the district courts. Every other case posted on the courtroom door sounded, let’s say, less upbeat.
Finding myself back in court only a few months after my own Milwaukee induction into US citizenry, it seemed strange to watch it from the other side. Oath takers arrived, nervous, dressed-up, clutching paperwork. Family members followed, excited and proud. For so many it had been a long and arduous journey. If you haven’t been through it, it’s a bit like being the bride: months of prep, of stress, of dress fittings and venue food testing and sweating the cocktail napkin colour choices. When the day arrives, you’re too tired to care if the tiny ring-bearer hurled the cushion into the koi pond or the groom forgot his vows.
Only it’s more than that. It’s many more years of preparation. It’s an even bigger – in many senses -commitment than marriage. It’s loss, or at least change, of one’s long-held concept of home. One of the guest speakers, herself a naturalized citizen, spoke of the changes in terms of grief and the notion that things will never be the same. She spoke of the underlying battle to process who you really are now and how others will view you. What to hang on to and what to leave behind. I found it moving in a way I hadn’t expected. It was my first time holding my hand over my heart and pledging allegiance to the US flag. It centred attention on divided loyalty and homesickness and pride and yes, grief; of being separated from one world while stepping through a door into another. I did it by choice when I married an American and it was still difficult for me. I can’t even imagine how it felt for those who had fled their beloved homes and would choose to still be in those homes if not for war, violence, fear, or persecution.
Some oath-takers brushed away tears through the whole ceremony. What did those tears represent? Regret, homesickness, gratitude, honour, a sense of loss, or a sense of gain? Another gentleman held his right hand so high while taking the oath, I worried he’d lose all feeling in his fingers. It’s a long oath. But his great pride was front and centre. Some spoke fluent English, some struggled to keep up as they read the oath. Some smiled at family, some appeared alone. Some waved American flags, some stared at their flags with looks of confusion. What does it mean to wave this flag now after a lifetime of waving other colours?
It’s a process, this citizenship thing. And I don’t mean just a complex, confusing paperwork process. It’s a process of moving on, of hoping to be accepted while questioning what you’re being accepted into as immigrants at this particular time in American history.
The judge shook my hand and thanked me for all I do for our local immigrant populations. I do so little, wrist brace notwithstanding. I just tutor families in the English language and help with childcare while mothers take classes. Many do so much more. I was embarrassed by the judge’s kind words. But he reminds me these little things send ripples across oceans and influence generations.
It felt good. To belong. To welcome. To feel part of something so much bigger than myself. As this country struggles to redefine itself as part of a global community, I know, wherever I live, I’ll continue to reach out to those from somewhere else.
Welcome, new citizens. Hope you enjoyed the veggies – and that you get the chance to welcome others yourselves soon. Thank you, Open Doors For Refugees, for this opportunity to serve.
This event was part of Welcoming Week 2019, one of 2,000 events held across the US designed to bring together immigrants, refugees and native-born residents in a welcome for all.
For more information on Open Doors For Refugees, go to http://www.opendoorsforrefugees.org/