SOUTH ORANGE, NJ — Twenty-five new U.S. citizens earned their naturalization certificates at the South Orange Performing Arts Center on June 27 at the first naturalization ceremony in village history. They were cheered on by friends, family and village officials who proudly waved their American flags as the candidates — representing 18 native countries — walked across the stage.
The historic event, organized by the South Orange Community Relations Committee and SOMA Action, was originally scheduled for March but was postponed due to snow.
The ceremony featured remarks from village officials and representatives of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, along with performances of the national anthem and “America the Beautiful” by the South Orange Middle School choir.
South Orange Trustee Stephen Schnall began his address by saying “hello” in the languages of the 18 countries represented. He also asked that the new U.S. citizens do what they can to keep the traditions of their first home countries alive.
“I urge you to actually bring along your various cultures, not only the language you came from — the food, the customs — because, at the end of the day, we are all in America but we can retain our identity,” Schnall said. “It makes us a richer and more wonderful country.”
Village President Sheena Collum shared with the candidates her mother’s journey to the United States from a small town outside Seoul, South Korea, and narrated the story of her parents’ traveling in more than a foot of snow to her mother’s own naturalization ceremony.
“I imagine my mom’s story is not much different from many of you,” Collum said. “I look at all of you and know that this journey probably wasn’t easy and your stories, too, should be shared from generation to generation.
“The truth is, immigrants like my mother and all of you are essential to this country. We are a melting pot of so many cultures that enhance lives of all Americans,” she continued. “You are what is wonderful about this country and will help map the course for its future.”
Among the candidates was Venessa Okpowe, whose trip from Nigeria to the United States in 2011 spanned two days and included a 12-hour stop in France. Yet, she remembers her journey as anything but tedious.
“Oh my goodness,” were the first words that escaped her when she recalled the moment she finally exited the plane at Newark airport. With a smile on her face, she took a minute to describe the memory. Finally, she said, “Words cannot describe how I felt.”
Okpowe left Nigeria because “things were tough.” To escape economic hardship, she came to the United States in 2011 through the Diversity Visa Lottery program. “I came to make a difference,” she said.
In the seven years she has been in the country, she has managed to accomplish her mission. She has made a difference in her own life and the lives of her family, which includes her husband and three children.
“I decided to work as hard as I did and things have been going great,” Okpowe said.
Also in the rows of candidates sat Dumercy Bouzi, who stood out with the small flag tucked into his dreadlock bun.
“After the earthquake, things changed back home” said Bouzi, who emigrated from Haiti in 2010. He decided to move to the United States, which he looked to as “the land of opportunity” where he “can make it.”
“I fulfilled my dream by coming here,” he said.
Photos by Kaanita Iyer