For Ebenezer McCarthy Sr., Monday was a great day.
McCarthy, who is originally from Ghana, was one of 47 people who stood in the shadow of Thomas Jefferson’s home and in front of hundreds of onlookers to take the oath of citizenship as part of the 60th annual naturalization ceremony at Monticello.
McCarthy, who first moved to America more than 20 years ago, was cheered on by family members in the audience.
“It’s a great honor to be a U.S. citizen,” he said. “Finally I can vote.”
Speakers urged the newly minted citizens to take an active role in their communities, inform themselves and participate in American democracy by voting. Like McCarthy, the other citizens said in remarks and in interviews that they planned to do just that.
“You now as new citizens are responsible to ensure that the ideals set forth in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Pledge of Allegiance, … that we make sure that these principles remain firm and true,” said Judge Michael Urbanski, the chief U.S. District judge for the Western District of Virginia.
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, this was the first year since 2019 that the event has been in-person and open to the public. Monticello officials estimate that more than 850 people were on hand to cheer on the new citizens.
Last year, 21 people took the oath at Monticello in a private ceremony. Monday’s ceremony also was the second since the pandemic began for the federal U.S. District Court in the Western District of Virginia, which has not yet resumed oath ceremonies.
“It’s a real privilege to be doing this in-person,” Urbanski said. “It’s truly the highlight of our year.”
Urbanski led the applications for naturalization through the oath of citizenship, noting that the words they said were the same enshrined into U.S. law in 1802 when Jefferson signed the Naturalization Act.
To celebrate their first day as citizens, many sported the country’s red, white and blue in some fashion from socks to earrings.
In aid of the celebration, Monticello invited several community partners to set up information tables inside a tent on the West Lawn and highlight their work. Attendees also could register to vote inside the tent.
Nicolle Fierro Comarovschi, who is originally from Peru, came to the United States on a work and travel visa and then met her husband. She wanted to become a citizen in order to vote and make her voice heard.
“A three-month stay turned into four years of being in the U.S.,” she said. “It is very exciting to be here and an honor to participate.”
Frank Friedman, who recently retired as president of Piedmont Virginia Community College after 23 years, delivered the ceremony’s keynote address.
Friedman said that he and the ceremony’s honorees have been fighting for the same thing: opportunity.
“America has been on a 246-year journey to make opportunity available to all and, although we’ve made great strides, the journey continues,” he said.
He added that the opportunities available in the U.S. come with an obligation to be involved, work to preserve democracy, support the rights of minorities and be tolerant of differences, among others.
“You’re about to become citizens of this great country — a dream you’ve had probably for many years,” he said. “You deserve it because of what you’ve done to reach today, but you earn it by what you do going forward.”
Kateryna Mekianov from Ukraine immigrated to the U.S. in 2015 after meeting her now-husband while she was studying in Poland. She graduated in May from the University of Virginia School of Law.
“I’m very excited to uphold the Constitution not only as a lawyer but also as a citizen now,” she said.
The last several months have been stressful for Mekianov, whose family is still in Ukraine, which has been fighting a months-long war against Russia. Her mother is a medical doctor and has been in the field helping those who need medical care, though she was among the crowd Monday. Meanwhile, her father is a member of the Ukrainian military but was still able to watch the ceremony live online.
“There’s a lot of uncertainty of what’s going to happen,” she said. “I just fear for their lives and safety every day.”
Hasib Haidary, who took the oath Monday, also worries about his family members who are still living in Afghanistan. He left the country in 2015 after working for the U.S. government as a translator from 2011 to 2014.
Haidary hopes to have his parents paroled in the U.S. through the Immigration and Nationality Act, but he hasn’t heard back from the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services.
“Hopefully they process the papers because living there [in Afghanistan] is not a guarantee,” he said. “You don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow or next week because we still don’t have an official government.”
Still, Haidary was excited about taking the oath and getting an official U.S. passport with his correct information. When he initially immigrated, his name was not processed correctly.
“I’m happy that I got my real name back,” Haidary said.
Many of those who took the oath Monday also were from Afghanistan.
Michelle Annette Fragar Baird from Australia said she wanted to become a U.S. citizen after falling in love with her husband and America.
“Here I am 13 years later and it’s a very humbling experience today,” she said. “I just want to say thank you. Thank you for welcoming us. Thank you for today. And we do plan on participating and voting and all these things.”
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