American Dream: 110 immigrants become naturalized citizens during Fourth of July ceremony

by Keith Barber

110 citizen candidates took the oath of citizenship during a naturalization ceremony at Old Salem on July 4. (photo by Keith T. Barber)

Ivan Manolov dropped to one knee and belted out a triumphant “Yippee ki-yay!” after receiving his certificate of citizenship during a naturalization ceremony at Old Salem on Monday. Manolov, a native of Bulgaria, was one of 110 candidates for US citizenship that gathered on the lawn of Salem Square during the Fourth of July ceremony. In the sweltering heat, citizen candidates from more than 46 nations took the oath of citizenship to officially become US citizens.

Manolov, who has lived in the United States for 12 years, said he felt calm and collected before he took the stage. But then the magnitude of the moment struck him.

“I felt a little emotional; I wanted to let steam off,” Manolov said. The historic setting and the timing of the event — the Fourth of July — made the occasion even more special, Manolov added.

“I feel like the rest of the country celebrates with me,” he said. “Every Fourth of July, I will celebrate two things.”

After a brass quintet opened the ceremony with its rendition of “America the Beautiful,” Lee French, president and CEO of Old Salem, touched on the living history museum being the place for the event.

“Historically, Salem was a place of immigrants — founded by first-generation immigrants and constantly flush with people from around the world as the Moravians aggressively imported ideas and talent to build this very unique community,” French said. “The history of this place coincides exactly with the arc of history that yielded the most free, the most prosperous and the most achieving society in the history of mankind — the United States of America.”

Beth Barbee of US Citizenship and Immigration Services then performed the call of countries. Barbee reeled off the names of 46 nations in alphabetical order — from Albania to Vietnam, and immigrants rose as their country of origin was called. Barbee then administered the oath of citizenship in a graduation ceremony for the citizen candidates in attendance. Repeating after Barbee, the citizen candidates renounced all allegiance to foreign princes, potentates, states or sovereignties and promised to support and defend the Constitution against all enemies foreign and domestic.

“Congratulations!” Barbee exclaimed, and the new citizens roared their approval.

The new citizens then walked across the stage and received their citizenship documents from Richard Gottlieb of the US Department of Homeland Security. Taking the oath of allegiance on the Old Salem grounds proved particularly moving for Cha Lee, 24, a native of Thailand.

“It’s a good feeling,” Lee said. “I feel like I’m part of something bigger and I have more opportunities now.”

Max Gomez, a graduate of Wake Forest School of Medicine and a native of Havana, Cuba, gave the keynote address at Monday’s ceremony. He told the story of how he and his family emigrated to Miami as a child. Eventually, all of Gomez’s relatives emigrated to Miami and became US citizens. Gomez implored the new citizens to make the most of their golden opportunity.

“To whom much is given, much is expected,” Gomez said. “You’ve been given something many in this country and the world can only dream about — the ability to make a difference. The choices you face today as new citizens include what you owe your country and your community.”

Gomez pointed out that Old Salem has a rich tradition of celebrating Independence Day.

“Salem was the first community in the 13 [colonies] to celebrate the Fourth of July as the day of independence — that was back in 1783,” Gomez said. “Today, 228 years later, it is fitting we celebrate this Fourth of July here with this naturalization ceremony.”

Gomez said the110 candidates for citizenship seated in white folding chairs on the Salem Square lawn Monday morning share much in common with Salem’s first settlers.

“We are all immigrants,” he said. “Today we celebrate 110 of you who have chosen to become Americans not by accident or by birth, but by choice, just like the immigrants who came to this country as far back as 300 years or so.”

“Remember, that immigrants like yourselves is how America renews itself, how it transfuses itself with new blood and new ideas, new energy to reinvigorate and sustain America as the land of freedom and opportunity,” he continued.

Gomez’s words resonated with Jyothsna Ramesh, a native of India.

“It’s not about you finish one stage and look back on your experience,” Ramesh said. “It’s about making a difference. I want to do my part; I want to make my world a better place.”

Manolov said he was inspired by Gomez’s challenge to leave his new home country a little better than when he arrived, adding that he wel comes the responsibility of giving something back for the honor of becoming a US citizen.

“America promises everyone an equal opportunity,” he said. “It’s up to us to realize this opportunity given to us.”

A Greensboro resident, Ramesh and her husband, Satyamurthy, moved to America 13 years ago when his work brought him to North Carolina. Their children, Advaita, 15 and 8-year-old twins, Siddhant and Ananya, fell in love with the people in the Greensboro community.

“I feel like I’ve been here all my life,” Ramesh said.

Ramesh said when she received word that she would take the oath of citizenship at Old Salem on July 4, it made the event much more significant.

“Otherwise, I would’ve become a citizen in a room somewhere and no one would’ve known,” she said.

The themes of opportunity, freedom and the American Dream permeated Monday’s ceremony from start to finish. It left Ramesh feeling inspired.

“That’s what I love about this country— you can set your goal and achieve it,” Ramesh said. “That is something that only happens here — people come here to realize their dreams.”