Recently, I had the opportunity to attend a naturalization ceremony in Washington, D.C., where 118 women and men from countries around the globe stood up and took the Oath of Allegiance to the United States of America. I was in awe of the number of countries represented and of the amazing diversity of age, culture, and race of these new American citizens.
As I sat in the courtroom listening to the guest speakers inform these new citizens about their new rights as Americans, it dawned on me that each one of them has their own story and journey. I wondered—what were they?
Was their story one of hardship? Was it one of education? Were they fleeing something, or just looking for something they couldn’t find in their birth nation?
I wish I had a glimmer into these stories. It’s a big thing to “renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty”. The one thing in common, though, was every single person there was taking this oath for a better life.
It was wonderful to be able to experience such an important moment in the lives of so many. It’s the culmination of years of time, effort, and, often, struggle, to participate in our great democracy—all in the hope of living the American Dream.
I am an immigrant—and sitting in that court room observing such a reverent event took me back to my own citizenship ceremony. I was 20 years old when I was naturalized and had many reasons for wanting to become an American citizen: I moved to the United States when I was five years old; I had been a permanent resident for some time; my father had already become naturalized. But, ultimately, becoming a citizen would open up so many more possibilities for me.
I was born in Durban, South Africa. My parents brought my brother and me to the United States to escape apartheid—to make a life of their own and better life for us. Like all immigrants, this came with huge sacrifices. While we came from a comfortable background in South Africa, my parents made a choice to leave that comfort for a better future for their children. I would’ve had a very different life if my parents hadn’t migrated to the United States. Because of cultural, social, and religious pressures, I would’ve been expected to follow a certain path. But here in America, you have the freedom to determine your own path—you aren’t bound.
Regardless of what economic background an immigrant comes from, each person comes with some of these same ideals in mind.
I remember the sense of pride and responsibility I felt as I heard “Anisa Tootla, South Africa” echo across the room during my ceremony. I saw that same pride and responsibility radiate across the courtroom now. You never forget that feeling—no matter where you were born, no matter why you came, everyone remembers that.
After I went home from the ceremony I pulled out my birth certificate, on which my apartheid population group was listed. It made me think about what I was and how I were classified by my home country—and the restrictions that would have happened because of that. Then, I compared it to my certificate of naturalization: It has my height, my eye color, my hair color and birthday, but I wasn’t designated as anything but what we were all designated as—citizens.
It’s important we remember the struggles so many go through to become what so many are just born into, so that none of us take the right of citizenship—and all the responsibility that entails—for granted.
In the United States, you have the freedom to figure out who you are and what impact you want to make. You have so many more choices. You matter. Anything is possible.