At 11:05 a.m. on Friday the 13th of January, an Iranian woman was the first to check in for New York’s last naturalization ceremony during Barack Obama’s presidency. She approached the kiosk alone — her husband was too ill to accompany her — and, when she handed over her green card, began to cry. Her journey had begun way back in 1996, she later explained, when she left Iran with her husband, two children, and $15,000 in her bank account. Her tears set the tone for what many staff on duty that day described as one of the more emotionally loaded citizenship ceremonies they have experienced at 26 Federal Plaza. A total of 95 people from 41 different countries officially became American, but it was a video message from the president that turned the room into an emotional hotbox. One 39-year-old, from Senegal, said his aunt had been teasing him about getting his letter of citizenship from Donald Trump. “I was like no! I do not want that letter,” he said. “When I opened the envelope and I saw Obama’s signature I was jumping up and down.”
Juana, 34, Dominican Republic
A few days ago, it was like I didn’t exactly belong. But today, the morning after the ceremony, I woke up feeling like a different person. Knowing I’m a citizen felt like a dream. I can’t put all the emotions into words. I was so happy. I smiled all day and I hurt my face because I was smiling so hard. Today I feel more friendly. I have rights. Now I can vote!
They played a video of Obama speaking and he said that if we give back to America just a little bit we can make change. I felt sad seeing him because I don’t know what the other president will do. But I also loved seeing him and hearing his words because I knew they were from his heart. It was like, he’s a human — and he’s a human who knows what it’s like to not always feel like you belong. They talked about Martin Luther King Jr. and how he got so many people to make a little bit of change and I was almost crying because it’s true, and I am part of this history now, too.
Papa, 39, Senegal
My father moved here in 1984, when I was only 2 years old, and now I am 39. In the beginning, I did not like it here. I only spoke French; I didn’t speak any English. I had to learn English myself from watching TV — I was watching those devil movies and laughing. You know, like Friday the 13th? I’d watch them over and over again. It’s funny; I got my citizenship on Friday the 13th! I got out of D.C.; I needed 24-hour culture, and fashion. D.C. was not my space, so I joined my aunty in Harlem.
Yesterday was like a daydream, or a fantasy. As soon as I read the papers they sent me about the ceremony I decided to wear a suit, and I only have one. My aunt bought me the tie from Macy’s. I had to work but I told her I wanted a black one with a specific design. We were FaceTime-ing while she chose my tie. She was there with me yesterday and I looked at her and she was crying. I said, “Why are you crying!” She said, “Because you are so happy and I love you and you are such a kind boy and I am so happy for you.” I said, “I don’t want you to cry because I will, too.”
I have a son who lives in Senegal, I haven’t seen him for five years. I miss him so much and he wants me to come visit so bad, but I haven’t been able to afford it. Each time we talk I am crying. Now I can make plans to have him and my mom here with me for good.
But back to Friday the 13th. I was happy, but I knew if I thought hard about it I would be sad about everyone who can’t have this. All those people who have been here 40 years and they have no papers. They are so scared. We don’t know what Trump is going to do — we don’t know.
When I woke up today I was like, I am still from Senegal. If you ask me tomorrow I will say I am an American citizen but I am not going to go into detail and I will not tell people unless they ask. And that’s because I don’t want to brag about it. I know I got lucky.
Constance, 52, France
My husband of 26 years, an American, came with me to the ceremony. He was very emotional — he comes from a family that has always had a great sense of civic duty. We celebrated with New York oysters in the evening. Aside from avoiding the harassment every time I go through U.S. immigration, I’m happiest about joining my husband and my three sons. And I am very proud to join this great nation. I have a photo that shows the flag my grandmother and her sisters sewed 72 years ago to welcome the U.S. soldiers about to liberate their town in eastern France. She loved the U.S. — and Louis Armstrong! She would have been so happy …
It was funny that the ceremony took place on Friday the 13th. Lots of friends made fun of that, you know: “Bad luck for America lolz”. I told them that beyond anything else I was so grateful to become American under Obama’s presidency. The most meaningful moment during the ceremony was when I watched Obama welcome us to the United States. His speech is actually the only thing I recorded. I’m unbelievably proud to be an American under his excellent presidency. We moved to New York before he got elected and I’ll never forget the night he won. Pure magic. New York was on fire that night. I could live off that energy forever.
We all know that there’s a ton of work to do to make sure the new president is not normalized. I see so many petitions and actions that American citizens can take to make sure there are checks and balances in place and that the government is held accountable for its actions. Before Friday I could never sign any of those. I could never “speak to my representative.” Now I can, and you bet I will — in fact I’m registering to vote this week.
Ana, 30, Dominican Republic
I was so proud to watch Obama speak on that video. I was proud of him not only as a president but as a humble man who knew how to reach his people. Maybe we were the last to hear those words. When I watched him speak I was thinking about how excellent he was as president. His words were spoken as if he knows us. I was happy and emotional because this country is difficult and hard but I know that everything I have been through since I got here has made me strong and independent. I was proud of myself. It is another step. This is an achievement. Maybe I am just a grain of sand, but together with others one grain of sand becomes thousands, and we can make a difference.
Carlos, 47, Venezuela
I had mixed feelings when I surrendered my green card to the officer. A part of me felt weird because that had been my main ID for such a long time, but, on the other hand, I was excited because I knew it marked the beginning of a new life with plenty of goals, opportunities, and challenges. Of course I could feel the positive energy in the room, I think we all felt it, right?
I feel so fortunate that I will be able to exercise my right to vote in elections to come. I believe that it was a big mistake Donald Trump won. We all know he is a very successful businessman but I think we need an experienced politician to guide this country, and this is now my country. From now on, this is my country.
Yong Zhao su, 51, China
We arrived about 22 years ago. At first we stayed with relatives in Chinatown; it’s a typical immigrant story. We hardly knew anyone. Eventually we moved to Bensonhurst where there was also a very strong Chinese community, and now I live Chelsea. When we first got here my husband worked in restaurants in Chinatown — he was a chef back in China — and I sewed clothes. I moved on to working other low-wage jobs and now I work in child care, back in Chinatown.
On Friday, I felt relief because now our entire family has citizenship. Luckily my daughter was on her break from college, so she came with me. She said that she was sad, a bit, because she knew that everyone in the room has struggled for so long to get citizenship, tests, paperwork, and answering all these questions that so many Americans don’t even know. I think there were a few other Chinese people, but there were so many Dominicans! Everyone clapped so loudly when they stood up. Many people were dressed in suits and nice outfits. I can’t really read in English, so my daughter looked at the instructions and told me to wear something nice. She said, “Be respectful.”
Astero, 49, Cyprus
I was 6 years old when the war happened in Cyprus. I lived with my grandmother in the village. I survived bombings; when bullets came flying through our windows I hid with my 3-year-old brother under a table. We had to flee our village on a tractor as my grandfather did not own a car. He went back to the house that same night to feed the farm animals and was captured as a prisoner of war …
Before Friday I thought that the ceremony would just be a bureaucratic exercise, but it was so much more than that. The best and most solemn part for me was when I took the oath of allegiance. It was as if, during that precise moment, I made the transition to being a U.S. citizen. It was like I crossed over. But it was a day of mixed emotions. I was happy that the long path to citizenship had successfully come to an end but I was emotional rethinking about how much it took to for me get there. I did not expect it but, by the end of the ceremony, a new sense of pride, for a country that I can now call my own, overwhelmed me. I came to the ceremony with my partner, Nicholas. It was a special day for both of us. As soon as it was over I called my family back in Cyprus to share with them the good news. Unfortunately, I had no time for a special celebration as I prepare intensively for another landmark in my life, my Ph.D. viva, which is scheduled for next Friday. I hope to have a double celebration then!
Bandar, 33, arrived from Syria (via Saudi Arabia)
I moved here in 2001 to attend school in Worcester, Massachusetts; I was only 19, and 2001 was a very interesting year to come to the U.S. … Not only did I have to adjust to this different culture, but I also had to adjust to post-9/11 America — the terrorist attacks happened two weeks after I got here. My immigration journey was further complicated by the introduction of screening processes to people from certain countries — I am Syrian but I grew up in Saudi Arabia.
Now I’ll be able to travel more freely and go back to see my family more often — I have not left the USA in almost seven years. And this also means that my family can get an immigration status and the process of them coming here to visit will be so much easier. And I am very excited to vote and participate in American democracy. I will vote in every election — so much sacrifice was made and is still being made around the world for people to obtain the right to vote and participate in picking the political, social, and economic future of their nations. Voting is a right and duty that should be cherished and honored. No one should ever say that their vote won’t matter.
Emilsis, 38, Dominican Republic
I was in tears the whole day. I thought about the men and women who made America and especially New York a land of opportunities. I felt proud of this country, and I felt proud of myself and my parents and proud of all those people out there who make this country safe. Even though I felt very happy, I was sad, too. Happy because of the opportunities I have been given to serve others and the right to use not only my voice but my vote, but I felt sad because I was all the time thinking about the people who work as hard as I work every day in this country and have no legal documents.
I came with my partner of life — I call him “My Super A.” We met when I was in a very hard place. I had cancer and he took care of me and wanted to marry me even though I was sick, could you imagine? I said no, because I thought I was going to die. I didn’t think it was fair to him to marry someone who was going to die soon.
The day of the ceremony, when we left the building, something strange happened … We are from Yonkers so we are not very familiar with the businesses in the area. In front of the Federal Plaza building there is a jewelry store. When we head to walk to the train station, a man standing outside of the jewelry store invited us to enter to see the engagement rings. Why engagement rings? I don’t know. But we looked at each other and said “Sure, why not?” And guess what? “My Super A” bought the rings that day. What a day for us! I’m so excited. I had to return to my job, but after work we went to celebrate at a Mexican restaurant here in Yonkers called Rancho Grande. We ate tacos, drank mojitos, and sang Juan Gabriel songs.
Glenroy, 43, Jamaica
That was one of those moments that you can only describe as surreal. I woke up the next day and I thought: Wow, I am a citizen of the most powerful country in the world.
I was crying! It actually made me cry. The tears started when Obama spoke. I always wanted to become American under Obama. I was getting nervous knowing Trump is on his way. And as a matter of fact, they called me and told me about the ceremony only a week before. They called in case I didn’t get the letter. My letter is signed by Obama. I wanted to become a citizen under Obama.
I remember the first time I traveled after getting my green card. Instead of all the fingerprints and questions and fear that they will just say, “Go! Go away for no reason,” they said, “Welcome home.” You can imagine how much better it is going to be next time I leave the country and come back. When I hear those words, I am going to be so happy. You bet I will be listening for those words, and if I don’t hear them I will say, excuse me, did you forget something?
Abul, 60, Bangladesh
My son was the one who got the call and then I got the letter. It was such short notice, less than a week. Then we got the letter and we were so excited when we saw Obama’s signature … If it had been Trump’s … what a joke. I’m a die-hard Hillary fan and it is the saddest thing that I could not vote for her. That’s the only sad part, if only I could have voted this year.
Johannes, 26, Germany
I loved seeing the excitement on other people’s faces. I’m privileged because I came from a safe and economically stable country, but other people in the room are not as lucky as me. The woman I sat next to told me that her parents never had the chance to make it to the U.S. after decades of trying.
I had no idea what to expect on Friday and maybe I was still anxious because I actually made sure I know all the lyrics to “The Star-Spangled Banner” … just in case they quizzed us!
Mayumi, 46, Japan
When I first came to America I was here to meet a guy who lived in Los Angeles. But when I arrived his wife showed up. It was a complete shock to me, but I had a friend in New York City who invited me to come for the remainder of my visa. I was living in the Bronx, off of Watson Avenue. I didn’t know it was an extremely bad area. I did get robbed.
I met a guy who impressed me with his style and fun, and I enjoyed New York so much I didn’t want to leave. And when I was supposed to go back to Japan he cried and begged me to stay and to marry him. I did. I felt he really wanted me and I really wanted to be part of New York. But it was a big mistake, because it turned out he had a long criminal history and he was extremely violent. Things quickly changed after we got married. I could have lost my life; he beat me and once he put a gun to my head. Finally, he was arrested after he showed up to a friend’s house looking for me with a gun. My life was hell for a little while, but good things always come out of bad. I met my current husband in a club at the Bronx way back in the day, and we communicated by writing on napkins, because I am deaf. Together we researched American history that we don’t often read in books. I wrote my autobiography in Japan in 2000 — it was called Fighto, and it’s about how I had to fight my way through life being deaf. It’s very difficult for deaf people in Japan, and when I came to America it was a whole other experience.
Paul, 33, Ireland
When the speaker said “Remember this flag, it may have only cost all of only 5 cents to make, but it’s your first American flag, remember that.” I will never forget those lines.
Taraneh, 56, Iran
The ceremony started at 11:05 and I was the first person to get there. As soon as I went to the kiosk to hand my green card to the lady I started to sob. And I stayed very emotional the whole morning.
I first came from Iran during the Iran–Iraq war — I didn’t want my son to be drafted. People born here take this country for granted. But if you work hard and you are talented you can become whatever you want. It gives you everything; you just have to want it. Those who live here, they see this from the beginning and they don’t realize how lucky they are to … just express an opinion! To talk about stuff … I see people who are upset about the elections and they can open their mouth and say things about it and that’s because we have democracy. It doesn’t matter: You have democracy, and that is so beautiful and that’s what brings you here. You get an identity when you get here. You can show your talent. You can talk-talk-talk and you can talk so openly; it’s not like that in my country. After being in America I realized I had some stuff inside me and I started writing music. I was able to let my talent grow. That’s what America is all about. You can get what you want if you are capable.
Yasmine, 47, Nevis
I came to Obama’s America, so it was so emotional to reach the milestone of being a citizen just before he’s going. Coming here was rough. I was a single parent, but thank God I kept struggling and going. I lived in the Bronx with family who I didn’t really know, and I was treated like a stranger. It was a horrible experience for me, but I have five kids and I kept strong for them — worked as hard as I could. In June 2011 my kids finally came and we were all together. I’ve cried so many times about how hard it was, but by 2012 we finally got our own apartment. I thank God every day.