This is the second year the DoSeum has hosted the event as a part of DreamWeek. In a time of inflamed rhetoric about who does and does not belong in the U.S., the spirit in the room was celebratory and inclusive.
The ceremony at the DoSeum included children from Kenya, Malaysia, Iraq, Nepal, Pakistan, the Philippines, Romania, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, Syria, Thailand, Togo, Ukraine, the United Kingdom, Ethiopia, Vietnam, Mexico, Bangladesh, and India.
As families arrived, a child ambassador greeted them with wristbands good for all-day access to the DoSeum. The children, ages 4-13, then began the final phase of what has now become a familiar part of process: waiting.
Just a couple more hours of waiting, one more line, a few more signatures and Moustafa Altabokhi, 9, would be a U.S. citizen. Naturalization is a long process. After completing the required steps, Moustafa's parents submitted his and his 12-year-old sister Miriam's applications for citizenship on the same day. One year later, Moustafa was called in for the interview that would allow him to move his path to citizenship forward. Miriam is still waiting.
The siblings' complicated journey began long before that: In 2009, their father was stabbed and left for dead on a trash heap in Baghdad. Their uncles were shot execution-style. Miriam still does not understand why.
Her mother, Yesamin Altabokhi, said explanations for why someone disappeared or was stabbed or shot were rare in their former life.
“Everybody was killing each other,” Miriam said.
The Altabokhi family is from Palestine, but they don’t think they will ever go back to their homeland – The U.S. is now their home.
They fled the violence in Palestine via Romania, New York City, Houston, and finally arrived in Austin, a city they've grown to love. Miriam is excited to become a citizen, because she wants to explore the world and visit family in Europe. A U.S. passport will open the doors to the world, allow her to travel freely, and return home to the U.S.
The children handed in their green cards and received certificates of citizenship as part of the ceremony. By the end of it, Richard Shelfo, a U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services officer, had amassed a stack of green cards, themselves symbols of significant effort and relative security.
“They are getting something better,” Shelfo said.
Citizenship is permanent, whereas green cards expire. Ten-year-old Quynh Le, originally from Vietnam, is excited to not have to constantly meet deadlines anymore.
“I won’t have an expiration date anymore,” Le said.
Huong Tran, Le’s mother, is a citizen, but her father, Ninh Le, is not yet. Her family left Vietnam in 2008 and ended up in Pfluegerville, Texas. They has been working through the lengthy process of naturalization since the day they arrived.
Sherry Dowlatshahi, Chief of Protocol & Head of International Relations for the City of San Antonio, spoke to the children before they took the oath.
“I know exactly how you feel. I became a citizen last year,” Dowlatshahi said. “For me it was a real aspiration and a goal to become a U.S. citizen.”
Dowlatshahi’s journey to U.S. citizenship began in Iran. Due to family ties to the United Kingdom and Mexico, she says she carries four countries in her heart. While the oath asks new citizens to pledge allegiance to the U.S., the experiences that tie the children to their countries of origin will continue to shape their lives and the lives of those who know them.
“You are all here because you have a story that you came with,” Dowlatshahi said. “You have advantages because you know what the world looks like outside the country. You know how different it can be, and yet we are all the same.”
Fawaz Gbadamassi, 11, already feels that sameness. His family left Nigeria in 2009 and came to the U.S. because they saw more opportunity for a wider range of people than anywhere else in the world. When he grows up Fawaz wants to become a doctor. He’s excited to become a citizen because he knows that path will be smoother once he is naturalized.
“The United States is a land of opportunity,” Fawaz’s father Lanie said. “[People from] virtually every country in the world are here. It is a great privilege.”
Each child taking the oath of citizenship represents a family effort and commitment. In order for children to become citizens, at least one parent must be a citizen.
Master of ceremonies Juanita Reyes praised the families that committed to the long and complex process of obtaining citizenship for their children.
“You as parents made it happen for your kids. You did the right thing by becoming citizens so your child can become a citizen before age 18,” she said.
DoSeum CEO Julie Huls also recognized the families' monumental effort and assured them that the DoSeum would be part of a community ready to include them in every way.
“We are honored to recognize your fearlessness,” Huls said. “Inclusion and equity are values we hold near and dear to our hearts.”