Tuesday, September 23rd 2014 - It is a clear bright California morning when we follow Ghazwan into the historic Paramount Theater in Oakland. Amongst a sea of immigrants from across the globe, what he is about to experience sinks in - like a pebble tossed through clear waters onto a sandy floor, “I’m just overwhelmed.” He says. “I’m really shaking inside. I’m going to be a citizen today! I just really, really cannot believe it - it’s like another dream just came true. It’s a really big relief.” Tears begin to stream down G’s face, “This is what I suffered for.”
Twenty-one times a year 1000-1500 immigrants from 12 surrounding counties gather here to be sworn in by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (UCIS). It’s a bit like a graduation ceremony. The streets outside are lined with vendors selling certificate binders, patriotic passport sleeves, and American flags. Family and friends head for the balcony to witness the event and those being “naturalized” find a seat on the main floor of the auditorium.
If you haven’t been in the Paramount Theater, it is something to behold - when its doors opened in 1931, it was the largest venue yet to be built in California. Rosewood from Bali, teak from Malaysia, marble from Italy - like the people gathering in the theater today, materials from around the world come together to form this magnificent Art Deco theater.
As the ceremony begins, I quickly realize that my experience of what is transpiring is far different than those seated in the theater. Looking around, I try to imagine all of the reasons that each one of these people are here today - love, family, work, persecution, war, torture… It’s a room enmeshed in complicated stories of joy and great suffering. Miniature hand-held American flags are waving furiously across the crowd and every emotion known is probably present as the ceremony begins. It is a very surreal experience.
As is customary in these ceremonies, people stand to acknowledge their heritage as the name of each country represented in the room is announced over the loudspeaker. It’s undeniably moving watching small groups and sometimes only one lone individual stand as the countries are called out. But, as “Mexico” is heard, the room erupts with emotional cheers and applause as hundreds of new Mexican-Americans stand. I’m surprised how flooded with emotion I am as I try to restrain unexpected tears. Other than Ghazwan, I have never met the people in this room today, but I can’t help but feel like I am a part of their stories - as I said, it’s a pretty surreal experience.
It is an experience that I very much look forward to reliving with Ghazwan and sharing with all of you when we have completed the film. Your support is very much appreciated.
“During the last decade, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) welcomed more than 6.6 million naturalized citizens into the fabric of our nation. In fiscal year 2013, approximately 777,416 individuals were naturalized, and through May 31 of fiscal year 2014, 414,804 people were naturalized.” ~ USCIS
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