Published January 25th, 2017 at 12:00 PM
Bangladesh. Burma. Benin. Somalia. Haiti. Ireland. South Sudan. Iraq.
One by one, 59 immigrants from 29 countries rise before a federal judge in a Kansas City, Mo., courtroom and proudly state their country of origin.
Some have brought their young children, who watch from the audience. All look eager and intent. This is a big moment: they are about to become U.S. citizens.
In 2017, hundreds of thousands of immigrants are expected to be naturalized as U.S. citizens in ceremonies around the country, much like this one.
Judge Arthur Federman looks out at the rows of faces and smiles. “It’s rare that we have an occasion in the courthouse where everyone leaves happy,” he tells them. “Hopefully, this will be one of those days.”
Erkin Rahimov, 54, and his wife, Limara, 42, are sitting in the front row, along with Erkin’s 26-year-old daughter from his first marriage, Sabikha. Erkin and Limara emigrated from Uzbekistan; Sabikha came to the U.S. from Ukraine, where she was raised by her mother.
The evening before the ceremony, I visit with the Rahimovs at their home, a spare, tidy duplex in Kansas City.
Limara has prepared a feast: the flavors of Uzbekistan, transported to the Midwest. There’s rice pilaf studded with beef: “The Uzbek national dish!” Limara explains. Also on the table: a tangy beet salad, pickled cabbage, eggplant and homemade bread. Limara pours green tea from a beautiful Uzbek teapot painted deep blue and gold. “We don’t have guests often,” their son Murad says, “but when we do, we give it our all.”
And the Rahimovs have much to celebrate.
In 2009, after many years of trying, Erkin and Limara won the green card lottery to emigrate to the U.S. So, in March of 2010, they left behind their life in Uzbekistan, a harsh authoritarian state. They landed in Kansas City with their two sons — 6-month-old Rasool and 9-year-old Murad — and not much else.
“I remember when we came to Kansas City with two small kids and three suitcases. It was challenging,” Erkin recalls. “The first days we were sleeping on the carpet. We just put sheets on it.” For pillows, they used their clothes. Then, he says, “slowly, slowly we started to work and buy some stuff.”
Now, after seven years in the U.S., the Rahimovs own their home. They recently bought property outside the city where they plan to go on weekends and grow fruits and vegetables.
They just leased a new car, a Hyundai Elantra.
Erkin is a civil engineer. He works for a Canadian company that makes harvesting equipment and travels throughout Missouri and Arkansas to train dealers and mechanics.
Limara taught math and physics in Uzbekistan. Now she works with children at an after-school program, and she’s studying for a degree in computer science.
Their sons are thriving. Rasool, now 7, is a Pokemon fiend and has test scores above grade level.
Sixteeen-year-old Murad, who spoke no English when he arrived in the U.S., is an honors student on an accelerated track through high school. He loves astronomy; his dream is to work for NASA.
“It’s amazing that my parents managed to get me and my little brother here for us to have a really bright future ahead of us,” he says. “I’m really proud of my parents!”
When Erkin and Limara become U.S. citizens, their children, Rasool and Murad, will automatically become citizens, too.
The Rahimovs say they’ve always felt welcome in this country. By way of example, Erkin tells this story: One day, soon after the family arrived in Kansas City, Murad missed the bus to elementary school and came home crying. The school principal, hearing about the mishap, came by in his own car to pick Murad up and ferry him to school so he wouldn’t miss a day. “It was amazing,” Murad says. “He’s just a really good person.”
Even though the Rahimovs came to the U.S. as legal permanent residents with green cards, the step of becoming citizens carries real meaning for them. They’ll be able to vote, and, as Limara puts it, “take part in the fate of the country.”
Looking forward to the ceremony, Limara says, happily, “We will be, I think, real Americans, right? We will be part of the United States.”
When I ask what America symbolizes to him, Erkin replies instantly: “Freedom. Freedom! Even my name means freedom.” He explains that erkin, in Uzbek, is translated as independent or free.
Erkin and Limara Rahimov share a family history etched with sadness.
They each have parents who were Crimean Tatars. They were among the Tatars who were forcibly deported from Crimea in 1944 in a mass expulsion, on orders of Josef Stalin.
The Rahimovs know well that freedom is something to be cherished.
On the morning of the naturalization ceremony, I ride with the Rahimovs to the courthouse. Erkin is wearing a somber suit and tie; Limara, an elegant black wool dress.
Sabikha has flown in from New Jersey late the night before. She’s a financial analyst with an MBA, and recently took a job with a company in New Jersey.
“Almost to the finish line, right?” Sabikha says as we approach downtown. “Well,” she adds, laughing, “maybe just new beginning actually!”
Inside courtroom 8C at the Charles Evans Whittaker U.S. Courthouse, the 59 citizens-to-be wait expectantly. They’ve already been through months of preparation: they’ve been fingerprinted, had background checks, been interviewed and they’ve taken an English and civics test.
Now the final step of the process has come. They raise their right hands and in unison, recite the oath of allegiance, pledging to support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States.
A chorus of global accents fills the room.
“Congratulations!” says Judge Federman. With that oath complete, they are officially U.S. citizens.
For Federman, conducting these ceremonies has special resonance.
As he tells the immigrants, he is himself the child of naturalized citizens.
His parents survived the Holocaust and Nazi concentration camps and went on to forge a new life together in America.
“We need to recognize that we are a nation of immigrants,” Judge Federman tells the courtroom. “And in the same way I told you my family story, I hope that you will tell your story to us and to our children, so that we can all appreciate the great diversity that makes up our country.”
As Erkin Rahimov listens to the judge’s words, he gently dabs away tears that roll down his cheeks.
“Thank you very much for being my fellow citizens,” Federman concludes, “and for pledging today as you did to uphold our constitution and the freedoms it guarantees to each of us.”
Soon after, the Rahimovs leave the courthouse, their eyes sparkling. They’ve already registered to vote, and are holding copies of the U.S. constitution and small American flags.
“I’m so excited!” Sabikha says, gleefully. “I want to make this country better. It gave so much to me. I want to give back.”