The International Institute of Buffalo held a naturalization ceremony Wednesday in conjunction with World Refugee Day. 25 candidates from 15 different countries officially became citizens of the United States. WBFO’s Nick Lippa was there and spoke with a few immigrants on what brought them to this country.
It’s a moment in their lives they will never forget. Hearing your name called and being handed documentation that says you’re officially a citizen of the United States.
“I feel…” Nkiambi paused before he was interrupted by his family, “American!” as the group of people behind him laughed. Nkiambi followed up, “I feel home. More people ask you, where are you from? Where are you from? Now I say I am a citizen. I am an American from Congo.”
Augustin Nkiambi emigrated from Congo in 2013 with his family after winning a diversity lottery. In Congo he was a construction engineer, but the studies for that job are different here in the US. This past May he graduated from Erie Community College.
“I have my degree now as an engineer. An American engineer,” he said.
International Institute Executive Director Eva Hassett said Buffalo is one of the top cities in the country for the percentage of people eligible to be citizens that actual become citizens.
“We have lots of agencies also that I think help citizens prepare, people who are eligible to be citizens, prepare for the test that they have to take, which is a written and a spoken test,” said Hassett. “I think that there are a lot of benefits that come with being a citizen like the right to vote. And I think that people understand that and they want that.”
Being World Refugee Day, Hassett asked those in attendance to think of those currently not lucky enough to become citizens. Currently there is over 65 million displaced people in the world and over 25 million refugees.
“These are people fleeing starvation. Fleeing death. Fleeing persecution because of who they are. And I think it’s very important that we remember in this country we get to be who we are,” she said. “We aren’t persecuted for who we are. Liberty and justice for all. Freedom and equality are American values and we need to remember them and practice them. That’s why people come here and want to be the citizens that we see today. Because they want those rights.”
Hassett said the rights that come with citizenship are something many these candidates have never had.
“I’m not always sure that I don’t take for granted a little bit the rights that I was born with. As you can see today, the people who have to take a test to get them don’t take them for granted at all. Everyone that’s here today filled out an application to be a voter I can guarantee you,” she said.
Jane Bell, originally from the UK, has lived in the United States for nearly 20 years. She led this new group of US citizens in reciting the Pledge of Allegiance during the ceremony.
“I’m looking forward to being able to vote. I’m looking forward to, not necessarily looking forward to serving on a jury but I’m happy to do that and anything else,” she laughed. “Three out of four of my kids are American. So it’s nice to be on the same side as them.”
Bell worked for a company in London that happened to open an office in New York City.
“So I volunteered to come over because it was a while ago and I just thought, ‘Yeah that will be an adventure.’ And my husband came over as well,” she said.
They planned to stay for only a couple of years before moving back to the UK.
“Which we did,” Bell said, “but then we decided that we missed America so we ended up coming back again.”
Bell said there are multiple reasons why she missed the United States. The people. The architecture. Even the sports.
“I am a Bills fan, I am a Sabres fan, I’m a Cleveland Indians fan and I don’t really do basketball,” she laughed.
For Bell, the process to become a US Citizen was long and hard.
“There’s a lot of hoops you have to go through. It’s expensive. Usually you need some help to do it as well,” she said.
You have to be in the US for at least five years in order to naturalize. Bell said the current political state of the country leaves many people misinformed about the process.
“People think, ’Oh it’s easy. They’re just letting anybody in and they don’t check.’ Believe me. They check everything. You don’t get in very easily,” she said. “You have to pass tests, they do huge background checks, you have to have medical, you have to have fingerprints taken, all your biometrics. You have to pass civics test, you have to learn about geography and history, you have to have a basic knowledge of English. There is a lot you have to go through. So it’s certainly not something that can be taken lightly or done very easily.”
Nkiambi said Americans also have misconceptions about other areas. Like Africa.
“So when (Americans) see movies or something, they think like Africa is a jungle. Most of the people are asking, ‘Were you living with lions?’ I come from the city. Kinshasa is a big city like Buffalo. I’ve never met a lion. I’ve never met a gorilla. Maybe in the zoo,” he laughed.
The US has 25 more citizens than it had yesterday. From Germany, Pakistan, Jamaica, the UK, and several others, including Congo.
“This is (the) American Dream. I was dreaming. I came. I did college. I’m now American. That’s part of (the) American Dream,” Nkiambi said.
For more Making Buffalo Home stories, visit WNED.org/MakingBuffaloHome