Under Extraordinary Circumstances, Becoming American Is Still 'A Dream Come True' In Kansas City
They chose American citizenship in a pandemic and a snow storm, with chaos in the nation's Capitol. Here's why.
On Jan. 15, snow began falling before sunrise, and by 10 am, downtown Kansas City, Kan., was puddled with slush. Outside, the city was quiet. But just inside the door to the Robert J. Dole U.S. Courthouse, people huddled shoulder-to-shoulder in long winter overcoats to stay warm.
This was a day they'd been anticipating, in some cases, for decades: the day of their naturalization ceremony.
Only, it didn't look quite like they'd imagined. And icky weather wasn't the half of it. For safety in a pandemic, the life-changing milestone typically set in a magisterial courtroom happened instead in a drab meeting space with fluorescent lighting, beige carpet, and no furniture. Relatives wanting to witness the big moment had to wait outside. It probably goes without saying, but everyone wore masks, a hard-to-ignore reminder that all was not right in the world. Participants couldn't be introduced one by one; in fact, they couldn't even sit down.
To get everyone in and out as quickly as possible, 25 people from 13 different countries filed into the meeting space, remained standing, took the oath of citizenship in unison, stayed for brief remarks — then hurried back out into the snow. The reception where people usually talk to each other and swap stories, or register to vote, had to be scrapped.
It might sound a little sad, but for Nabil Bedros of Lebanon, who celebrated afterward with takeout from Chipotle, this ceremony — even in its barest form — was the culmination of a family odyssey and a personal dream. He was ecstatic, days later, watching his first presidential inauguration as an American citizen.
"You feel it when you hear the anthem," he tells me, putting his hand to his heart. "You feel it in your body, that you are American."
Nabil talked to me via Zoom, with his wife, Liliane, and his 23-year-old son Joseph. They, too, became citizens last Friday.
The goal of U.S. citizenship has been guiding the Bedros family's decisions since before Joseph was born, and their search for a home has been going on even longer. It started more than a century ago.
Nabil's grandfather was born in Armenia; he moved to Lebanon to flee the Armenian genocide in 1912. Nabil, like his father, was born in Beirut, where he met Liliane. But from 1975 to 1990, Lebanon was torn apart by a Civil War. So the couple left — this time, for Brazil. There, they started a family. But by then, they'd already fallen in love with the idea of the United States. They moved to Canada, just to get closer.
They are the biggest America fans I have ever met.
"When we landed in JFK airport, I got tears in my eyes," Liliane says. "I always wanted to live here."
What she loves about America, she says, is "everything." Even the weather.
She feels comfortable saying what's on her mind here. There are places, she tells me, where "you kind of have to watch out, you have to whisper the words."
For some Americans by birth, including me, the moment when the Bedros family took the oath of citizenship — between November's election of a new president and his inauguration this past week — felt like a suspension between the democracy we take for granted, and the threat of something else, something unknown.
I asked the Bedros family if chaos in Washington worried them, or gave them pause. And I'm paraphrasing here, but they were basically like, pffft, no.
"In the Middle East, you have religion problems and conflict. All nations are the whole time in conflict, in war situation. They never have stability for more than 15 to 20 to 30 years. One reason I decided to take my family to the United States, when you look at the history, you see, for more than 200 years, they have the stability. They have the freedom of spirit. For my family, it was a dream to get there compared with what my father and my grandfather passed through in the Middle East. We love the country there, but we know that the United States is a better place for our future generation."
The Bedros family was distraught by the violation of the Capitol right before they took their oath of citizenship (and that's not because of any kind of party identification; they say they're centrists, maybe center-right). But they were always confident democracy would survive.
"We are in the United States," Liliane says. That was and is enough to reassure her.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Teresa James, who presided over the Jan. 15 naturalization ceremony, says opening the court to welcome new people, new perspectives and new skills is crucial to democracy. While onlookers might see only what COVID has stolen from the ceremony, James sees something else: a ritual so necessary that the court has taken all kinds of drastic measures to keep it going in a pandemic. Some states have instituted drive-thru naturalizations, with people reciting the oath of citizenship without getting out of the car. The judges here felt strongly that new citizens deserved recognition in court.
What James misses most about the longer ceremonies, beyond seeing the smiles on unmasked faces, is hearing where people are from and what they do.
To get a taste of that experience, she asked the citizens naturalized on Jan. 15 to quickly shout out their countries of origin. Which they did. Listening, I could only make out a few of them: Honduras, Mexico, China, India, Brazil, and yes, Lebanon.
James then quoted American writer EB White:
"Democracy is the recurrent suspicion that more than half of the people are right more than half of the time. It's the feeling of privacy in the voting booth, the feeling of vitality everywhere. Democracy is the letter to the editor. It's the score at the beginning of the ninth."
Of course, as Kansas Citians know better than anyone, anything can happen in the 9th inning. But for the Bedros family, being part of the home team is still a dream come true.