September 18th, 2009 23:02 EST
"With all my heart, I now say - 'I do!' " - A Naturalization Memoir of an SOP Writer
It`s been almost two days since, but I`m still caught up in those moments...incredible and happy ones...from an unforgettable show that USCIS dazzled me with, just hours ago. 1294 others and me. All of us starting out on our new lives, in our new environments, emotionally. If you asked us to describe the experience and do it in one word, we would all chime in, together - "Woow!"
Getting things ready, the day prior to my oath, I looked at the stern wordings of the letter " Thought of something to wear. So, into the dark recesses of my closet I disappeared and then emerged, many moments later, with the dusty relics, one on each hand. A quick detox operation later, I was in front of the mirror - "I look RIDICULOUS in them!" I thought, but got them ready anyway, because of the words still echoing in my ears need to look nice ". I had wanted to wear our Buganda traditional gown, I then thought of the Kitenge also known as Dashik but then realized, I am becoming an American what do Americans wear. A nice silk suit would do since I have many of them anyway and so I chose a brown one, which would reflect the American tradition, but as well my Brown heritage I thought.
It was close to midnight - "I`d better check the paper-work. One more time...and get the directions to this place", I thought. I did both and then, before hitting the pillow, it struck me. These were my last few hours as a Ugandan citizen....I jerked my head up and sat on the bed, looking on out. I rose slowly, walked to my desk and admired my passports for a long, long time. "Tomorrow, I`ll be a Ugandan no more...how is it going to feel like?" I wondered. The next day, hid in it, the answer, one that I totally wasn`t expecting...
"Please report at 7:00 am", the letter said. Perhaps USCIS had secret knowledge of an auspicious time when the planets aligned or something, I don`t know. All I knew was that I had to make the two-hour drive to Campbell Center by 7:00am. And so I did. I got there at 6:15am, gulped down a bottle of water and did my pre-flight check-off routine - "Letter - check. Card - check. Here we go for take-off!". I jumped out of my car and started huffing and puffing my way into the Campbell Auditorium, in my coat, tie and all, feeling the breeze of the cool morning, it felt like Alaska because of the emotions and nervousness. Then I went to ask the guy if I could park where I was. He gave me a go ahead and I went on. As I walked down the winding road leading up to the entrance for my number, I was joined by groups of families, each of a different, wondrous hue and nationality. We were all dressed in our best and we were all, united, I`m sure, in our common goal at that moment - "get to a place that`s warm!". Unfortunately it was colder inside.
This brought back memories when we landed in France way back and we all from America that were Green Card holders and those with American passports bonded together on a train to catch our flights to other destinations. Black or white we all spoke same language with right dialects that everyone seemed like family even when we had met five minutes ago. It felt same way.
We checked in and got lined up into groups. "After you are in line, look carefully and see the last three numbers of your Alien Card. It is where you will get your certificate after getting naturalized. Then, and ONLY THEN can you move about, to go the rest room! If you forget where you are seated and do NOT return to that exact spot, you will have broken the order of your naturalization certification issuance...and might not get one!" our USCIS usher thundered and then chuckled. To us, this translated into "Do NOT move from your seats. EVER! With that thought, I walked up the stairs, past the doors and then looked up. And froze. A million light bulbs glowed along the lines of the ceiling. Enveloping the carpeted floor of the huge hall were countless red and black chairs. It seemed to be a walking ad for The Men`s Wearhouse and Elle, all at once. People buzzed around - here there, everywhere...thousands of them. I followed my line, sat down and immediately took mental pictures of not just the lady to my right and the guy to my left, but the family ahead and to my left and the kids behind and to the right of me. Satisfied that my coordinates were now locked down in my head, I breathed easy and a sigh of relief thinking this is over now, not walking backward anymore, for the first time in the day, and looked around to soak in some more sights and sounds of the place. Scanning the rows from left to right, I felt like I was attending a United Nations convention. I met a new guy whose company took my photos in turns after taking his. He was from Philippines. I said Mabuhaye to him we became friends right away.
He wondered how I knew and I told him how I worked in the hospital and met lots of his friends. On the far right a Korean guy was taking pictures. His features made me think he was Korean and when I yelled out Yoboseyo ", he responded with a smile Yoboseyo. My new friend in the front was surprised how much I knew about everybody else.
His companion middle-aged guy knew I had travelled extensively. We talked about where we are going after this, I told him of me wanting to go to London for a week and we all talked about our Presidential Club cards and all. He was a nice dude, I said. He was so happy for us.
An announcement for Kolaches, donuts, coffee for sale was made but no one wanted to go anywhere. We all sat put. It was 8, then 9 then 10 O`clock when a woman came on and introduced herself. She revealed herself to be one of the district employees from the USCIS Houston District Office. He informed us that the Judge would be swearing us in "exactly few minutes from now..." and that we could move about, if we would like to, until that time. No one budged. She then talked about our obligations as new Americans. Number one was to VOTE. Then came in 4th Grade Students from the District who would later lead us into the Pledge. "Awesome! huh u hu and the yihaaaas all engulfed our ears."
Feelings of my father who died in 2004, my mother who died in 1996 exactly a year after I landed, Elizabeth the woman who paid and prepared my trip and became a mother of my second born son who died in 2002 because of my journey came to mind and I could not hold my tears back. Fortunately there were no pictures.
My Dad, God bless his soul, never loved music but got to be a radio fun manager because of my talent, he should have been here to see me cry tears of joy. I thought his spirit might be here now watching over me. He would be taking off his hat for me and I would be responding with an approving node. Unfortunately not. But I felt his presence. My mother too was there in spirit. She always hated my father but loved me as a son. I was becoming American.
I wished that they were there to enjoy the music the DJs in the corner was putting on - "Fantastic! Fantastic!! They boomed all the great American songs. Speakers rendered patriotic songs and made us soar along with the voices as we sung along. The hours flew by and the Judge made a grand appearance. The lady informed him that there were immigrants from 109 countries assembled in the Court (yeah, that`s right, the hall morphed into a Federal Court in session, in a jiffy!). And we were all 1294 Applicants.
The Judge welcomed everybody to the ceremony and told us as his mother (O`Leary) came to America in 1948 and became a Naturalized citizen in Houston and now her son was a District judge, and so, he was proud. "Why America is a country of immigrants?" he introduced the 4th graders from Kincaid School, introduced his staff to us and introduced the Houston Bar Association President as a chief speaker for today. A speech I took seriously, literary. Mr. Barrett encouraged us to vote and anticipated to see and hear about the great things we are about to for our new homeland. I took that to heart. I have done so much for my community over the 14+ years but could not wait for what I hope to do as an American. The sky is now the limit I yelled to the surprise of people next to me who were caught by surprise of my emotions!
The judge`s words that I translate as, through all their struggles in a new land, they never gave up. After a lifetime of persistence, they lived to see all that they came looking for, in this great country. The living proof of each of those hopes of the past was in the promise of the future, standing right there on the stage... made me cry even more.
And that`s when it hit me - as I was about to start a new life on this day, feeling that I was letting go of a part of myself, I wasn`t really losing anything at all! Everyone, proudly celebrating his or her heritage, while becoming a vibrant new fabric that makes the USA, filled my heart with pride. I have always cried when something good or bad happened to Americans and I always thought deep inside I had already been accepted. That part except for the treacherous journey I was going through to get there. The journey that brought hills and valleys and dreams that scared the hell out of me. Dreams that brought me nightmares getting me to have PM pills and Melatonin becoming a daily dosage to my fears that I have fought forever.
And then, as I raised my hand to take the Pledge and turned my body to face the flag as the judge did and placed it over my heart during a magnificent rendition of The Star Spangled Banner, I did so, with my heart filled with just one, pure emotion - pride.
I did not hear all the communication of what the judge mentioned and what the District Officer answered while she pledged for us so we can swear in except when the judge asked if we DO solemnly swear and I heard myself say YESSSS in a loudest tone you have ever heard. I thought I was the only one saying YES. Truth is, I was just all in myself like a ghost that does not hold anything because of being a ghost with no body.
I wanted it done over with so I can feel safe. So I can erase the fears of home that I ran away from, the abuse from my stepmother of the years, the hate and pain from all that did not like me except Elizabeth who fought so hard to see that I succeed and become free.
I had wanted it to end because the investigations on the businesses and me I held before had taken so long and so tough journey that I never slept. Interrogations that spanned from 2 minutes to hours so I can qualify to be a Citizen all left me dazzled for weeks thereafter and this time, I was looking at the four officers who all these years quizzed me with furry. I was not mad at them then, because I was only telling the truth and they were doing the sworn duties. I was not mad at them now because I knew they had found me worth being an American. With my horrible past, my fears, my convictions, my worries, broken marriages, a child out of wedlock, lottery winnings, the many homes, all sparked what Mr. Mason called red Flags " and I never saw myself having a chance to be an American. But: I was singing and whistling a triumphant song of a sparrow. And so let the Sparrow sing I said to myself. I had come face to face with all these wonderful federal workers I had seen as bullies through the process.
The District Supervisor was signing off the appointment letters, I tried to hide from him thinking he might change his mind and deny me Oath; he had called me Lightening in one of the interrogations and had referred me to Former Presidential Candidate. He talked of him being known by everyone and running for presidency but as well having a child out of wedlock. I was scared of the man. The other last gentleman and I do call him a gentleman was one that had lastly looked into my file and gave me the promising news. He had called me in for name change because he saw my son`s birth certificate and thought, it was mine. When I came in he apologized for me traveling all the way and made copy of one I brought and with a smile, he said, I am the leggy man, your file is complete, we are waiting for supervisor to approve it and then we will write you in few days. He had made me feel welcome even when I had been afraid showing up. He was the only one I shook a hand and he remembered me! He said, Oh you made it, congratulations! All in all like Mark twain always wind up, I was a citizen after all. No hard feelings and God bless these men who do all the great work of scrutinizing everyone so they can the right candidates for the Citizenship, however I still feel like I was one of the regiments in the 1775 war of liberation. Did I fight? Yes I feel like it. My wounds have not healed yet and my emotions still humped around in fear that I might see the British again. They are all fears.
In the small town of Brookshire where I have offered jobs and given service for the last 6 years as a builder, Tanya the Municipal Water District Manager gave me a thank you, City hall staff welcomed me home and I left with a smiley on my face.
And a friend on my facebook advised me to Import in the Ugandan culture and trade since it makes our American Pot of cultures but export the democracy in that now dictatorial ruined country. "
From that unforgettable moment on, I knew that the home that I grew up in still stands and shines, far across the oceans. I knew that I had now found another home. I did not suddenly stop being Ugandan - I am still that AND so much more...I am now a Ugandan-American!