Naturalization Ceremony Celebrates Diversity

     HOUSTON (CN) – A naturalization ceremony in the country’s most ethnically diverse city showed America is still a beacon of hope, despite the vows of Republican governors to stop Syrian refugees from settling here.
     Houston edged out New York to become the most diverse city in the nation as of 2010, according to a census analysis by the Kinder Morgan Institute for Urban Research.
     It has also accepted the most Syrian refugees, 90, of the 2,200 who have moved to the United States since the Syrian Civil War started in 2011, according to the Houston Chronicle.
     To celebrate the city’s diversity, Houston dubbed November “Citizenship Month” and partnered with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to swear in 73 new Americans on Thursday in a city library in the Gulfton neighborhood, southwest of downtown.
     In Gulfton, you’ll find Hispanic men hawking mangos on street corners, women in hijabs crossing the traffic-heavy streets that are lined with Arabic signs, and African men in dashikis waiting at bus stops and restaurants advertising exotic foods like saffron-flavored kabobs and pupusas, a Salvadoran staple made of tortillas, meat and cheese.
     Houston City Councilman Mike Laster spoke about that diversity at Thursday’s ceremony.
     “Some of you have heard me call this part of town the Ellis Island of this city. And for those of you who know you’re American history, you know that Ellis Island was the point of entry for thousands upon thousands of Americans. Just as Galveston was,” Laster said. “Today we sit at the heart of an international community, where we celebrate as many as 85-different language communities resident in this neighborhood.”
     Solomon Gebrekrios, a 32-year-old from Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa, sat in a back corner of the meeting room that hosted the ceremony. He gushed with pride as he explained he was there to see his wife become a U.S. citizen.
     Gebrekrios naturalized nine years ago and returned to his home country to find his bride. They now have two young kids, a boy and girl, both U.S. citizens.
     “I came to this country under political asylum. It was back in 2002 or 2001. The government was going to colleges, universities and high schools and arresting the students,” Gebrekrios said. “At that time I took off from that country and I go to Kenya, I asked for political asylum and the United Nations refugee service accepted my case and I came to the United States.”
     The U.S. is special because of the travel privileges citizenship confers, he said.
     “A U.S. Passport is really good when you want to travel,” Gebrekrios said. “My God, every country accepts the U.S. passport.”
     He said the Ethiopian government pretends to support democracy, but it’s a farce.
     “Back home still you can’t speak critically of the government. You can’t say nothing. Because of that the Army sometimes goes to colleges and universities and if they want they’re going to shoot you. They don’t care,” Gebrekrios said.
     U.S. District Judge Vanessa Gilmore, an African-American, presided over the ceremony and administered the Oath of Allegiance to the immigrants, the largest groups of which were from Vietnam and Mexico.
     She had them stand, raise their right hands and pledge to “renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity” to their home countries, “support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic,” and “bear arms on behalf of the United States when required by the law.”
     A poignant moment came during the national anthem. A middle-aged Mexican woman turned to a Guatemalan man wearing a baggy red Tommy Hilfiger jacket, both new citizens, and tapped him, telling him to put his hand over his heart as if to say, “You’re an American now. This is how they do it.”
     Gilmore told the new citizens they now have the right to vote, to run for and hold every public office except president, and to serve on a jury.
     After the ceremony, the immigrants adjourned to the lobby to get their citizenship papers and cake.
     Lloyd Gatobo, a 36-year-old from Nairobi, Kenya, who speaks perfect English, looked dapper in his navy blue suit. To Gatobo, a realtor and accountant for an oil and gas firm, getting citizenship felt like a formality.
     “I came 19 years ago right out of high school,” he said. “I’ve been here so long that, I don’t know, it seems like just another ceremony. The only thing I can do now that I haven’t done is vote.”
     He said he’s been following the Syrian refugee crisis and backlash on the news, and doesn’t agree with Texas Sen. Ted Cruz’s contention that we should let Syrian Christians in but not their Muslim countrymen.
     “I think you should check everybody, but I don’t think you should put people in categories and say no Muslims. I have Muslim friends, so they’re not all bad,” he said. “Not all Syrians are bad. You can’t put people in categories. Not all Americans are good.”
     City of Houston Health Department worker Kim Vu, 45, said her bosses asked her to attend to help translate for the Vietnamese immigrants. She said she empathizes with Syrians’ plight because she ran from southern Vietnam as a young girl with her family in 1975 when the communist North Vietnamese government invaded.
     She said she was grateful for America’s decision to sponsor thousands of Vietnamese war refugees, which allowed them to become U.S. citizens.
     “We were refugees ourselves and we were running from war and we wanted a new life. We didn’t want to live under communists. That’s why we fled,” the petite and youthful-looking Vu said. “But thousands of us died in the ocean, just running away from communism. The reason we came over is because we want our freedom too. So the Syrian people I understand because they are running from war too.”
     Amer Al-Nahhas, a 55-year-old native of Damascus, is president of the Syrian American Club in Houston. He came to Houston in the ’80s.
     “It’s disappointing to see how quickly the tide turned. There was a whole lot of sympathy for Syrian refugees,” he said in a phone interview.
     “Just finding one passport with a terrorist that may or may not be fake and extrapolating that is a big danger for Syrian refugees,” Al-Nahhas said. “From what I understand they are very thoroughly checked out before they come here. In my mind, it’s not American to turn our backs on people in need.”
     Al-Nahhas said his organization is helping some of the Syrian refugee families in Houston acclimate to the culture.
     “We’ve given them some classes on the American way of life. All the Syrians who have arrived came through resettlement agencies,” he said. “There are several [resettlement agencies] in Houston. But what we try to provide is just some kind of connection so they don’t feel all alone over here.”
     He said all the Syrian refugees he has met in Houston are married couples with young children. Many didn’t escape from their war-torn country unscathed, he said.
     “Many of them have medical issues of one kind or another,” Al-Nahhas said.
     The Syrian refugees in Houston are dealing with the language barrier and working on getting their driver’s licenses so they can find work, though several have marketable skills, Al-Nahhas said.
     “The ones here are very grateful for the fact they are here and safe and their families are safe. I’m sure some have become fearful now to see the tide turning, where they felt very welcome initially and now they are starting to hear the news,” he said.
     As for Obama’s plan to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees next year, Al-Nahhas called that number a “drop in the bucket” compared to the millions of Syrians that countries bordering Syria – Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan – have accepted.
     Texas Gov. Greg Abbott told the Obama administration on Monday that his state will not accept any Syrian refugees after last week’s terrorist attack in Paris.
     Thirty other governors have also said they do not want to accept refugees from Syria, according to CNN, but final authority over admitting refugees rests with the federal government.

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