Celebrating Freedom and Equality through Citizenship

Celebrating Freedom and Equality through Citizenship

Written by Tarah Carnahan, Executive Director

As I stood in the cold drizzle outside Forest Hills Fine Arts Center I stood with hundreds of neighbors, some becoming citizens today, and some playing a supportive role. I reveled in this picture of America. African patterns, Nepali Kaftans, sparkly dresses and fancy shoes looking their best despite the cold climate around us this January day. Each one with their own unique journey, complex stories and identities that countless books could be written about, and yet a singular status they are pursuing - Naturalization - each seeking freedom and security through this step. 

I greeted a young college student with Murakaza neza, welcome in Kinyarwanda, when she told me where she was from. Her sleepy 8am eyes lighting up at the familiar coming from an unexpected place. We talked about the Rwandan community in Grand Rapids and how isolated her family is so I took her number to connect her to a community that is waiting to embrace her, and also hoping she might want to lead some teen girls in our Concentric program next year! 

Once inside I found myself next to a Turkish woman I know, but wasn’t anticipating seeing, who is waiting for asylum - there to cheer on her friend. 

62 countries. 192 people. Each making a conscious decision to make this place their home. 

Then I spotted the woman I was there to celebrate - my dear friend Rasheeda! In her stunning pink suit and vibrant smile she stood with pride when they finally got to S and called out Sudan. 

Pride for the countries and culture they represent and pride for the flag they are waving today. They can both be true. 

There are stretches when my American identity feels challenging, when some things we represent don’t represent me (which should always be the case in a democracy!) But today, I am witnessing the best of who we are, the hopeful imagination of a nation of immigrants. Even when I know history tells me that our idealized concept of the city on a hill and the Statue of Liberty were only welcoming certain people and how racialized and exclusionary our welcome has been as a country - I still feel like it could become true. That this nation of every tribe, tongue, belief, identity, race, nationality find common ground to live at peace with one another. What a beautiful picture of paradise. 

The judge presiding over the ceremony named that this is his favorite part of his job, that he is so glad that each of these individuals will be a part of his community because he knows they will make us better. He named lies these new citizens may have heard in the media like immigrants are criminals, or are lazy and looking for a free meal, etc. He refuted each one with statistics and proclaimed them to be the best of us.

After handing Rasheeda a rose and taking some pictures of her family I rushed out for another meeting, but with a pep in my step, because this is why I show up to work each day - to celebrate, learn from and create opportunities with the dynamic new neighbors who are making West Michigan home!