Five-year-old Hiyam Mahfuz watched her mother clutch an American flag Monday and repeat the words “I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America.”
“Do you know why we’re here?” a visitor asked the little girl, dressed up in a sparkly pink outfit and a cat-ear tiara to attend the naturalization ceremony.
The daughter of a newly minted U.S. citizen replied: “Mommy’s lucky.”
Seada Ali, Hiyam’s mother, was one of 37 new citizens celebrating their luck at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. Like Ali, who said she fled Ethiopia 10 years ago because of political violence, many of them were refugees who marked their acceptance in the United States while reflecting on the plight of refugees today.
The ceremony, which conferred citizenship upon immigrants from 16 countries from Afghanistan to Vietnam, fell on World Refugee Day, a commemorative event created by the United Nations in 2000.
Magda Hussein, who came to the United States as a refugee from Sudan 14 years ago, said she is particularly excited to become a citizen in an election year when refugee resettlement has been a topic of political conversation.
“I’m so proud to be a citizen. It’s so good to be an American, especially in this time. Now I have voice,” she said. A mother of four who lives in Lorton, she was a fan of Barack Obama and wished she could have voted for him. Now she’ll be able to vote for Hillary Clinton, she said, declaring with her ballot how disappointed she has been by Donald Trump’s verbal attacks on refugees, particularly those from Syria.
“This is not fair. The United States is welcoming for everyone, no matter his faith, no matter his color,” she said.
The Holocaust Museum director and federal officials who spoke at the ceremony connected the modern refugee crisis with the history that is retold at the museum.
Sara Bloomfield, the museum’s director, said that the immigration policies adopted in the early 20th century were explicitly racist, meant to keep less-wanted people out of the country. The United States had no refugee program, just a restrictive immigration policy, when the Holocaust began, trapping Jews in Europe who might have fled Nazi Germany. Today’s refugee resettlement program grew out of that past, when U.S. leaders saw that as a mistake after World War II ended, Bloomfield said.
“Today we celebrate those lessons that were learned,” she said.
Then 37 immigrants stood for the national anthem, many filming on their smartphones. They echoed the oath of allegiance, pledging to serve their new country in a medley of accents.
“Congratulations, my fellow Americans,” said Homeland Security Department chief of staff Paul Rosen to a lengthy standing ovation. “Make your mark in this land of opportunity.”
Rosen said his relatives were persecuted in the Holocaust, as did Antony Blinken, deputy secretary of state. Blinken told the story of his stepfather, who at 16 survived Auschwitz and Dachau and then ran into the woods under Nazi gunfire to escape a death march as the war was ending.
The teenager waited in the woods for a day until he saw an American tank passing. He ran toward it, fell on his knees and said the only English words he knew: “God bless America.”
“Just as he ran toward that star, so do you,” Blinken said.
“This is without a doubt one of the finest privileges of my life, to welcome you . . . to celebrate your citizenship and reflect on the peril and the loss you endured to reach it,” he said. He referred to “deeply unsettling undercurrents in our own communities” of anti-refugee sentiment. But he also expressed faith that voters would continue the U.S. tradition of welcoming those fleeing persecution.
That message rang true for Abdul Koroma, who arrived in the United States as a 7-year-old refugee from Sierra Leone when his country was split by civil war.
“I think it means freedom and opportunity to be successful,” he said of his newly conferred citizenship. “It was a blessing for me.”
Koroma’s mother Nancy Floode made it to the United States first, with the expectation that her son would soon follow. Then she waited in horror as the situation in the land where she had left her small child in the care of relatives took an awful downturn. “They were cutting babies’ arms off,” she said. When the relatives fled the country, taking the boy to Guinea, she was frantic.
She continued to worry about him when he made it to the United States through the refugee resettlement program. He was withdrawn and frightened of other children. When he went to class for the first time, he sat on the floor, unaware that the other kids would sit at desks.
Now, he is a smiling 19-year-old. A successful student who just completed his freshman year at Virginia’s Randolph-Macon College. An aspiring accountant who boasts with a grin that his goal is to pull in a six-figure income someday.
And as of Monday: a U.S. citizen.