American dream can become reality

Pete Howard stands with Antonia Basas on her special day.

Recently I attended a swearing-in ceremony at the Buffalo U.S. Immigration and Citizenship Service facility in which my partner and 14 other folks from all over the world received official documents declaring them new citizens of the United States. While I was very pleased and relieved to see Antonia achieve her long-time goal, I was especially struck by the array of humanity represented there.

It wasn’t an especially glamorous or festive occasion, nothing like the pomp and grandeur of, say, international games. But it wasn’t a haphazard display of third-world nation fallout like the images we see from the Southern border. Rather, despite the diversity in height, hair styles, skin color, and headdresses, it was a picture of regular people with shared feelings of apprehension, excitement, and relief.

Like most government agencies, especially those involving international affairs, there is a strong security presence. While the armed personnel who greeted us were not unfriendly, there was a palpable feeling of no-nonsense, that this was strictly business, and everyone would be treated with the same indifference. (I should note that the frequent triggering of the metal detectors was unalarming, my own artificial hip being one of the many perpetrators.)

The atmosphere inside the waiting room was antiseptic. There were no outdoor windows, no tables or shelves with reading materials, nothing on the walls except instructional posters; there were only rows of chairs lined up in front of three blinded windows. It had the feel of residual COVID, and certainly not conducive to the kind of celebration intended for these inaugurations.

Despite the dull decor, the mood was light and easy. There were folks from Burma, Taiwan, India, the Congo, Thailand, Ethiopia, Canada and other places I can’t recall. Their attire was just as diverse – colorful hijabs, shawls, dresses, jeans, sport jackets.

There were sounds of soft laughter (a common, musical language) along with some random cliches as folks practiced their English.

For many of us born in America, it’s hard to imagine changes in life that would cause someone to leave their homeland. There are thousands of possible scenarios; each person has his or her own story to tell. Many are success stories, of reuniting with family, or of some kind of professional promotion.

But I think others involve more serious, sometimes desperate circumstances. What could have happened in their lives that would lead them to the brink, and to find the resolve to go through with a plan that would permanently change their lives? My guess is that it must have had something to do with freedom.

There is no ignoring the political world tensions present in these kinds of gatherings. It is hard for most of us Westerners to understand why women of certain cultures choose or are forced to wear head coverings. Especially in the long shadow of 9/11, we are confronted with something foreign and inexplicable, something akin to the “Other”. I was struck by one mysterious woman who, when forced to remove her very large, dark sunglasses while being screened, was absolutely beautiful. During the remainder of the ceremony, she wore the glasses, even at the end, when we all gathered for pictures.

The ceremony itself, led by an Asian American, was short and sweet. He reminded the newcomers of their basic rights and responsibilities as US citizens before calling them up individually to receive their official document and shaking their hands. At the end, he urged us all to capture the moment by taking a picture in front of the mini-Statue of Liberty in the lobby on our way out.

This was the best part. While waiting in line, everyone was smiling and offering to take pictures of each other. A woman wearing a colorful hijab smiled radiantly as she took my and Antonia’s picture. For those precious minutes, there were no borders, no barriers, no “Others”. We were all just people, Americans now, and happy to be together here on this clear morning in downtown Buffalo.

Pete Howard is a Dunkirk resident who teaches English Language Arts at Northern Chautauqua Catholic School. Send comments to editorial@observertoday.com


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