DA News FEED
Before taking her seat on the stage of Durham Academy’s Kenan Auditorium, Antonia Lazaro paused to proudly display what she’d sought for nearly two decades — the certificate that once and for all declared her a citizen of the United States of America. For Lazaro and the 19 other new American citizens who took their Oath of Allegiance on Wednesday, that piece of paper represents so much: safety and stability, opportunities for education and employment, freedom of speech and religion.
“I won’t be scared because I can be sure,” explained Lazaro, who moved to the U.S. from the Mexican state of Guerrero 18 years ago to be with her husband. Her children were born here. “I can keep my family together forever in [the United States]. For education, my family, it's different opportunities when you're a citizen. … Now I have all the tools.”
DA Upper School’s hosting of the naturalization ceremony is at the center of a month-long focus on citizenship, including programming in advisory groups and assemblies. At the annual Veterans Day assembly, Capt. Jonathan Kralick spoke about his unique perspective on citizenship as a U.S. Army Special Forces officer. In Monday’s morning meeting of the student body, Upper School history teacher Thomas Phu, who escaped Vietnam with his family shortly after the Vietnam War, shared about his experience as a naturalized American citizen. The focus on citizenship has been felt through all divisions of DA this month, as outlined in a blog post by Head of School Michael Ulku-Steiner.
Anne McNamara, who taught AP U.S. History at the Upper School for many years and now serves as the Upper School’s director of community service, inquired about the possibility of DA hosting a naturalization ceremony after learning about such an event hosted by Loomis Chaffee School in Connecticut.
“I saw this and thought, what a wonderful way to bring such a positive message to the school,” McNamara said. “We don’t realize that this is happening all the time. Every week, at least 100 people in our community are taking that oath, yet we have this feeling that it’s just happening far away.
“This is us, and every part of our community is enriched by it,” she continued, noting that many members of the DA community are naturalized citizens. “Look at Constanza [de Radcliffe, French and Spanish teacher] and Liliana [Simón, Spanish teacher] and Thomas [Phu].
The idea was enthusiastically received by school administrators, and McNamara and Upper School Foreign Language Academic Leader Jennifer Garci set about planning every detail of the event to make it special for the new citizens and their families. The Upper School band and chorus performed patriotic songs to celebrate the occasion; student ambassadors welcomed and assisted new citizens and their loved ones while on campus; DA Parents Association hosted a reception for guests after the ceremony; and students set up a voter registration drive for the new citizens.
Upper School Director Lanis Wilson opened the ceremony by acknowledging the diligence and “undeterred will” that it took for the new Americans to earn the privilege that native-born citizens had conferred upon them as a birthright.
“Your history and our history are now one,” he said. “We share a love for the Constitution, an admiration for the men and women — like George Washington and Harriet Tubman, and Martin Luther King and Susan B. Anthony — who represent the best of what it means to be a U.S. citizen.”
Before taking the Oath of Allegiance and reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, the 20 soon-to-be citizens stood as the countries from which they hailed were named one by one: Kenya, Russia, Mexico, Zambia, Colombia, India, China, South Korea, Tanzania, Nigeria, Argentina and Poland.
Delivering congratulatory remarks was Victoria Muradi, DA’s director of enrollment management. She noted that she stood in the same shoes as the new citizens on March 5, 1993, when she became a naturalized citizen as a high school sophomore. It had been over a decade since Muradi and her family fled Afghanistan because of political persecution and found refuge in America — or as they called it then, Amreeka.
She recalled the treacherous journey that led them to the United States (learn more about Muradi’s story here) and some of the challenges she faced as a child and teenager with “a foot in both worlds but never really feeling like I quite belonged in either country.”
For her parents, leaving behind danger in Afghanistan also meant leaving behind their entire identity — their language and literature, their history and education. While her father held an MBA and owned a successful business and her mother had worked as a second-grade teacher in Afghanistan, the only employment they could initially find in the U.S. was working as a busboy and a dishwasher.
But with much hard work, Muradi and her family members found their place in their new home. When she was sworn in as a naturalized citizen, her feeling of belonging in America was complete.
“For my own family, Amreeka has meant everything,” Muradi said. “We live in safety, my parents' hard work earned them their own restaurant and the chance to become homeowners. They put my siblings and me through college and graduate school, and now my own children will have liberties that I could not even fathom. I am living proof of the American dream.”
Among the 20 citizens naturalized at DA on Wednesday was Zambia native Luke Chirwa. He and his wife were among the lucky 50,000 people chosen from around the world to be part of the “green card lottery,” or Diversity Immigrant Visa Program. They’ve been in the U.S. since 2010 and “haven’t looked back since.” Chirwa’s wife is scheduled for her citizenship interview later this month and could join him as a citizen soon after.
“It’s massive,” he said of the day’s significance. “It’s a big deal, just to become part of American society. It’s something that as a kid, seeing it on TV, being an American, it’s a big thing. I’m so glad that it happened today.”
Manning the voter registration drive after the ceremony were junior Emily Kohn and senior Eamon McKeever, who said it was powerful to see the new Americans exercising their right to register to vote just minutes after earning it.
“We’re sort of doing this together,” McKeever said. “I actually just filled out the form to register to vote last summer and voted in my first election this year. I think it’s really cool. Voting in a U.S. election is one of the defining aspects of being a U.S. citizen.”
The ceremony meant a lot to McKeever, as his mother was born in Germany and became an American citizen when he was a child.
Wednesday’s naturalization ceremony was the first that Kohn had witnessed, and it was a powerful experience.
“I’m a very proud patriot,” she said, “and it was just so beautiful for me to see them have worked so hard to get to where they are and become a part of our country.”
In his address to students two days prior to the ceremony, Phu, the Upper School history teacher, urged students to cast aside poet Emma Lazarus’ description of immigrants as tired, poor “huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” No immigrant wants to be so pitied, and such a description perpetuates a stale, one-dimensional narrative, Phu argued.
“Immigrants, those who have and those who will put their hand over their heart on Wednesday, are hard-working, strong, resilient, smart, resourceful,” he continued. “… To make it in America, you have to roll up your sleeves. You've got to turn it on bright, you've got to stand tall. You've got to steady your heart, and you've got to go. And believe me, some people don't quite make it, but a lot of them do. And they have made an incredible difference to make this union more perfect.”