5 years ago

American Magazine, Nov. 2013

The flagship publication of American University. This magazine offers a lively look at what AU was and is, and where it's going. It's a forum where alumni and friends can connect and engage with the university.

“I have grown

“I have grown incredibly loyal to America. I felt I had joined something huge.” In 1972, Chris Palmer found lasting love. Twice. A British national born in Hong Kong, the then 26-year-old had just traveled across the pond to Cambridge, Massachusetts, to study at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. “I was going there for a year to have the time of my life,” he says. “That was the plan.” On the first day of orientation, he spotted a beautiful woman with an open seat next to her. “I remember I wore this bright green suit and purple shirt and tie,” he says. “I thought I looked good. There weren’t many seats left, so I sat down next to her and said hi. She turned out to be my wife.” Palmer would have moved anywhere to be with Gail, to whom he’s been married for 38 years. But he didn’t want to move anywhere—he’d fallen for her country too. “The typical American is driven by ambition and audacious goals, revels in a buoyant optimism and practicality, doesn’t care about class or who your parents are, applauds hard work and entrepreneurial zeal, lauds the self-made person, relentlessly pursues constant self-improvement, and is fearless when it comes to new and noble challenges,” the School of Communication professor says. “I love all those notions and wanted to live in a country where those values mean something. I wanted to stay here for the rest of my life.” Palmer worked on Capitol Hill and in the Carter administration, never paying much mind to his nationality, until he learned he was ineligible for a high-level position in the Environmental Protection Agency because he wasn’t a citizen. “I thought about it for a few minutes and said to myself, I’m happy to be American,” he recalls. So he pursued citizenship, ultimately taking the naturalization oath of allegiance in Baltimore in 1981. “It was very poignant,” he says. “I’ve read a lot about American history. I love reading about the Founding Fathers and Abe Lincoln. George Washington strikes me as one of the greatest men that’s ever lived. All this was going through my mind as I took that oath.” More than three decades later, Palmer thinks of himself as “a very proud American of British heritage.” “Even now it makes me emotional,” he says. “I have grown incredibly loyal to America. I felt I had joined something huge, and I had thrown my lot in to a country that I think is the greatest country in the world.” Jazmynn walked into the federal building in downtown Detroit a Canadian, and walked out an American. She also walked in a Bigelow and walked out a Croskey. The 19-year-old freshman’s journey to citizenship was every bit as much about her familial identity as her “I felt like nationality. The daughter I really of a European father she accomplished never met, she grew up something. in Brampton, a suburb of I can go Toronto, before moving anywhere to Michigan at age and say, seven when her mother, ‘I’m an Andrea, met and married American.’” her stepfather, David Croskey. “My grandparents are from Guyana, and my brothers were born in America,” she says. “We’re a nice big, blended family.” Before heading off to college, Croskey, SIS ’17, wanted to make official the country she calls home as well as take the last name of the only father she’s ever known. In August, just a week before she came to AU, she became a U.S. citizen and changed her name. “I was the youngest person at the ceremony, and that was something the judge and the clerks noticed,” Croskey says. “I felt like I really accomplished something. I can go anywhere and say, ‘I’m an American.’” “I felt proud for her, I felt proud for our entire family,” says her mother, Andrea, who also became a citizen. “It’s nice to feel that our family is connected through citizenship.” “Coming to America was important because I could see a future for us here,” says Hassan’s father, Mohammad. He doesn’t speak English, so his son translates his emails. “I imagined life in America as peaceful, with no fear of danger and with job opportunities. I never thought we would be living in America until we got on the plane to come here.” They were set up in a three-room apartment in public housing in the rough Atlanta suburb of Clarkston, Georgia. Thrown into a fifth-grade classroom, Hassan simply sat quietly and watched. “For me it was pretty bad,” he says. “I didn’t speak the language—I didn’t even know my ABCs. I was bullied every single day. I couldn’t go outside [our house]. I saw with my own eyes people getting shot. Our neighbor to our left was killed. Two bullets came into our house.” He had made it to the world’s bastion of democracy, only to discover that cruelty knows no nationality. The turning point came when Hassan joined the Fugees Family, a soccer team for refugee children. He was a shy, quiet, wayward soul when Luma Mefleh spotted him on a playground. “One of his classmates was playing on my team, and he was watching me,” says Mufleh, the team’s coach. “I asked him if he wanted to join, and he got this big grin on his face.” Having never played organized sports before, Hassan struggled on the field. But his development—both on it and in the classroom—was striking. He began making friends and transferred to a private school run by the Fugees, a nonprofit that includes a variety of organized soccer programs, afterschool tutoring, the private academy, and an academic enrichment summer camp. “He had a work ethic that put a lot of his teammates to shame, and it started to pay off,” Mufleh says. “It wasn’t just on the field, it was academically. He was with other refugee kids with similar backgrounds, not a lot of formal education. But academically he was much further ahead. In eighth grade, we had him sign up for an algebra class online through the University of Nebraska. The other kids could barely do their multiplication. He went from a kid who couldn’t speak, make eye contact, or carry on a conversation to one who was a lot more confident, a lot more secure.” Hassan’s father found work as a mechanic and was able to move the family to a nicer 30 American Magazine NOVEMBER 2013

house in a safer suburb an hour away. In ninth grade, he enrolled in the prestigious Atlanta International School, relying on scholarships to cover his tuition. “With education, one can not only resolve one’s own problems but work toward helping others and resolving others’ problems,” his father says. “With education one becomes aware of the world.” Hassan focused on college from the outset, taking International Baccalaureate classes in subjects like English and biology. “My older brother and older sister never got to go to college,” says Hassan, who has younger siblings studying at universities in Atlanta and Iran. “I always knew that I wanted to be something on my own.” “I think citizenship, in a country of great diversity such as ours, is an important element of cohesiveness. It says that legally, whatever your religion, whatever your race, whatever your ethnic origins, you are now a permanent member of this society with all of the rights that a person who was born here has.” —Alan Kraut As is the case for many immigrants, scraping together $680 for the citizenship application fee was an immense hardship for Hassan. Of the estimated 13.3 million green card holders in the United States in 2012, about 8.8 million were eligible for citizenship. Yet the most ever naturalizations in one year was 1.05 million in 2008, according to the federal government. The hefty price is perhaps one reason why. This summer RISA helped him arrange to cover the fee. The average lag time from filing to oath is five months, but the dysfunction in Washington means that Hassan’s will be even longer. He’s not worried about the test. Candidates must demonstrate aptitude in English by reading one of three sentences correctly and writing one of three correctly. That won’t be a problem for Hassan, whose English is impeccable. He picked it up in the first six months he was here, in part by watching TV and talking to friends. Candidates also must correctly answer 6 of 10 civics questions selected from a pool of 100. (Kraut was one of the historians involved in revising the history portion of the test, an experience he describes as “fascinating and political.”) Hassan should ace that portion without breaking a sweat. He’s now lived in the United States for almost as long as he’s lived outside it. “In a society that is homogeneous, in which everyone comes from similar ethnic backgrounds, similar religious backgrounds, similar racial profiles, and can trace their roots back deep into the country’s history, perhaps citizenship wouldn’t be so important,” says Kraut, who’s working on his latest book, Forget Your Past: Negotiating Identity, Becoming American. “But I think citizenship, in a country of great diversity such as ours, is an important element of cohesiveness. It says that legally, whatever your religion, whatever your race, whatever your ethnic origins, you are now a permanent member of this society with all of the rights that a person who was born here has. Naturalization then becomes terribly important.” As it is to Hassan. When the conversation shifts to his impending citizenship, a smile sweeps over his gentle face. “I love this country,” he says. “Although there were some bad experiences and sometimes I didn’t feel welcome, that’s a part of everywhere. You go to Afghanistan, and in some parts you might feel hated. In some parts loved. But I love [the United States]. It’s given me a lot. I never would have been able to go to a regular school. “I want to become a citizen so I can go back to my village, because the vague memory I have of there is like a drawing. The mountains, the river, the farm, I still have the connection. I was born there, my extended family is there. I’m always going to be an Afghan, but I’m also an American now.” “in that moment you’re overcome by a sense of tremendous pride.” Denied. The word felt like a punch to Fanta Aw’s gut. While planning a trip to visit to her native Mali, she was refused a transit visa by France. Aw, Kogod/BSBA ’90, SPA/MPA ’94, CAS/ PhD ’11, had moved from the small African nation to the U.S. in the 1970s, when her father worked for the World Bank. France’s decision not to allow her into the country might have been minute on a geopolitical scale, but it came to hold immense consequence to Aw. It started her on the path to American citizenship. “I was struck that being born in a certain part of the world created an obstacle for me,” says Aw, assistant vice president of Campus Life and director of International Student and Scholar Services. “The freedom of movement is very important to me. [American citizenship] was the only way I felt I could regain my sense of empowerment.” Along with securing an American passport, earning the right to vote was critically important to her. Soon after becoming a citizen in 2008, she cast hers for president. Years later, Aw still remembers the emotion of her naturalization ceremony in Baltimore. “Each person there had a story and a journey,” she says. “Whether it was a refugee who left everything behind to start all over; whether it was the person with an entrepreneurial spirit who saw infinite potential in America; or whether it was, in my case, the journey of someone who came to this country as a student, gained an education, and I thought I could give back to this society. As we were standing there, I think each person was playing in their own mind what their journey had been. In that moment you’re overcome by a sense of tremendous pride.” Aw, who retained her Mali citizenship as well, considers herself an American of African descent, not an African American. “A lot of times you kind of romanticize in your own mind what all of this means,” she says. “Citizenship is socially constructed. We make it up. And in making it up, we build our own stories and pretty grandiose narratives about what it is. I think for anyone who makes that decision, they see the glass as three-quarters full. Let’s talk #americanmag 31