GREEN COVE SPRINGS – Twenty-six candidates from 17 countries were naturalized at Green Cove Springs Junior High last Thursday. The second annual naturalization ceremony held at the school began …
GREEN COVE SPRINGS – Twenty-six candidates from 17 countries were naturalized at Green Cove Springs Junior High last Thursday. The second annual naturalization ceremony held at the school began with Supervisor Elizabeth Ward from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services welcoming the candidates, their families, faculty, staff and students.
Ward recognized the upcoming observance of Veterans Day in her opening remarks.
“Veterans write a blank check to the U.S. government that can pay up to and including their life,” Ward said. “Thank you for your service to this great nation.”
In a surge of emotion, she thanked military spouses and their families for their invaluable, devoted support. She paused and looked away for a moment.
“I’m a 26-year Navy veteran,” she said. “That’s all that I have to say.”
Students from the National Junior Honor Society were paired one-on-one with each candidate. The students had the honor of meeting their candidates, walking them to the stage and presenting their names to Ward. The candidates then took their seats on the stage.
The ceremony was the final and celebratory step in becoming a U.S. citizen in what was, for many, an ordeal that was decades in the making. It starts with obtaining a work, school, asylum or lottery visa. The Diversity Immigrant Visa program, or green card lottery, is applied by more than 11 million people annually. Fewer than one in 200 applicants are accepted.
After obtaining a visa and meeting eligibility requirements, such as being a permanent resident for three to five years, prospective candidates can begin applying for citizenship. Candidates fill out Form N-400, which asks personal and demographic questions. The next step is a biometric appointment and interview, where applicants are asked about their background and tested on their English and civics knowledge. Completing all steps qualifies candidates for the naturalization ceremony.
New citizens were eager to tell their stories and embrace their new homeland. Arvie Cerezo from the Philippines was eager to celebrate with his family and grab something to eat after an emotional ceremony. After a 34-year ordeal, he said it was well worth the wait.
Wilawal Rascon from Thailand met her husband on Valentine’s Day on a business trip. She said she was eager to start her life as a citizen with her family. The husband and wife went off to Whitey’s Fish Camp to celebrate.
Esra Ulukay from Turkey was joined by her son and other members of her family. She said she was lucky to be chosen and wants to make the most of her opportunity. She misses her country of birth, but she is excited and happy to live in Florida.
Rupert Davidson from Jamaica was joined by his wife; both were excited and blessed by the opportunity. He plans on starting his own real estate business here in Clay County. It has been a dream of his for a long time.
The guest speaker, Tuodora Boktor, is a teacher at school and a naturalized citizen from Egypt.
“We had the dream to move to the U.S. For four years, we had no luck. Just as we were about to give up, we won the lottery. That marked the beginning of a journey that accomplished our dreams,” Boktor said.
“Leaving Egypt was bittersweet. We had to say ‘bye’ to our loved ones and our home. Now, we have a new home in America.”
Her new home was where her sons were born.
“This is my Super Bowl,” said Principal James DeMarie. “We look forward to (the naturalization ceremony) every year.”
DeMarie shared his family story, how he is only a generation removed from his immigrant roots.
“My dad was 19 when he trained at Camp Blanding before heading off to fight in World War II. Growing up, he’d always ask, ‘Do you know how lucky you are to be an American?’
“One time (during the national anthem before a sports game), my dad couldn’t stand up for the anthem. And he made me pick him up. I teared up on the ride home. ‘What’s wrong with you?’ he asked.
“I realize now what I realized then: I am lucky to be an American,” DeMarie said.
Director Lisa Bradley from USCIS invited soon-to-be Americans to take the Oath of Allegiance, where candidates raised their right hand to renounce all titles and past sovereign allegiances, promising to defend the U.S. Constitution and bear arms for the country if requested by law.
Thunderous applause, a melodious rendition of “America, My Country” from the Treble Choir, the Pledge of Allegiance led by eighth grader Lucas Pham and the Clay High NJROTC retiring the colors concluded the ceremony on a high note.
The ceremony would not be possible without the efforts of Michael Taft, who teaches civics at the junior high. Learning by doing is a crucial tenet in his class.
“I hate desks and seats. I want my students up and doing things,” Taft said. “We do a lot of participating and role-playing in government. We have a functioning government in class: senators, representatives, a president and me as the sole judicial member. Our students are involved in the community and at school. They’ll deliver a ‘State of the School’ address to the student body.”
The civics program at GCSJH is number one in the state.
Addison Blom, Andelyn Caraway and Martina Laureano were three of the students in the National Junior Honor Society who were paired with the candidates. Although nervous, the three shared in their candidates’ excitement because they wanted to pronounce their names correctly on stage. The students enjoyed getting the chance to hear about their inspirational life stories.
Despite the administrative hurdles, each candidate said they would have done so again. No matter how long or how many steps, not one candidate complained. Each was tremendously thankful, hopeful and emotional, with many tearing up as they embraced their families. Many of the new citizens missed the family and friends from the countries they left behind. Some vowed to visit again. Some realistically could not.
They clutched their flags, fresh citizen forms, and conviction for a brighter future. The candidates were lucky to be chosen, lucky for the opportunity, and lucky to call themselves American.