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Citizenship At Halftime - 2002-04-19

English Feature #7-34666 Broadcast April 2, 2001

Swearing-in ceremonies for new American citizens are usually held in courtrooms, or schools, or at historic sites. Just recently, however, a group of Americans-to-be had a different experience - they were sworn in during a basketball game in Washington's huge indoor sports arena, the MCI Center.

Fourteen thousand fans gathered at the MCI Center for a game between Washington's basketball team, the Wizards, and the Detroit Pistons. Outside, policemen were much in evidence, chatting with the fans and each other but keeping an eye out for trouble. Inside, music blared through the loudspeakers, punctuated by announcements and, once the game started, by commentary on the game. Vendors moving around the bleachers sold popcorn, drinks and cotton candy. Air-filled zeppelins floated above the crowd, advertising various products. Ten shapely cheerleaders in short-short skirts, halter tops and white boots shook silver pom-poms whenever a player made a basket. In other words, a typical night at the D.C. sports arena.

Not so typical was the half-time event. After the second quarter of the game, fifty immigrants from as many countries filed out onto center court, carrying tiny American flags, to be sworn in as citizens of the United States.

"We present a special ceremony to naturalize 50 immigrants hailing from 50 countries across the globe. Just minutes from now they will be full-fledged American citizens."

The immigrants stood in a line in the center of the area, alphabetically according to country of origin, beginning with Afghanistan, Albania and Algeria and ending with Uruguay, Vietman and Zaire. Although the venue was unusual, the ceremony followed established procedure. As the names of the individuals to be sworn in were read they stepped forward, then everybody raised their right hands and the district director of the Washington office of the Immigration and Naturalization Service administered the oath of citizenship. There was a short, but heartfelt, speech by Rabbi Laszlo Berkowits, himself an immigrant from Hungary, a Holocaust survivor, and a naturalized U.S. citizen.

"To be a citizen of the United States is a great opportunity to live as a human being in freedom. This is a priceless gift of the generations that came before us. It is our duty and responsibility to be the best citizens a person can be. Congratulations to each and every one of you. God bless you, and God bless the United States of America."

The audience of sports fans, which had quieted down during the ceremony, gave the new citizens a rousing standing ovation. Tarik Omir from Sudan was thrilled by the ceremony and the reception he and the other immigrants received.

"Oh, it was so good. I was nervous a little bit, but after that I did so good. I feel so great, I feel so happy now."

Mr. Omir came to the United States five years ago as a student. He now works for a telephone company, but he has other plans for the future.

"I would like to go back to school and get some degrees, and get married, and stay here."

Rana Iman, an optometrist, came to the United States from Iran twenty years ago, and just recently finally decided to become a citizen.

"It's very emotional. I never have thought about it until, you know, today. I really haven't thought about it in depth. But it's just really a major step in one's life. It's one of the main decisions that I've made in my life as an adult."

Samba Tchindarak, a bus driver who immigrated from Thailand twenty-two years ago, said he applied for American citizenship because he wanted the right to vote.

"Select the best leader of the world. That's why. I have a choice - to be a person to choose our best people in the world."

The naturalization ceremony at the MCI Center was sponsored jointly by the basketball team the Wizards, and the Washington chapter of the American Jewish Committee. David Bernstein, the committee's director, says the choice of venue was not as surprising as it may seem.

"First of all, the owner of the Washington Wizards is Abe Pollin, and Abe Pollin is the son of immigrants himself, and very committed to immigration and the ideal that it represents in American life. Second of all, basketball is in a way the ultimate American experience. So it was a way of recognizing immigration and the role it plays in American life right here in a piece of Americana."

Next week on New American Voices - immigrant taxi drivers talk about their work and their life in America.