An immigrant from India wondered if she and her family were doing the right thing by committing to American citizenship. Would her prayer for assurance be answered?
- Posted on Jun 23, 2017
“I need a flag,” i said to my husband, John.
He looked puzzled. “A flag?” he said. “Why?”
We’d just received our letters from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), officially approving our applications for naturalization. Only one step left—a formal ceremony on June 11, when we’d take our Oath of Allegiance and become American citizens. Something I’d dreamed of ever since I was growing up in India.
John knew how much this meant to me. So how could I explain the unexpectedly complicated emotions I was feeling? Joy, excitement, gratitude—of course. But also fear and doubt. Once we took the oath, there would be no turning back. Our families were in India. What if our parents needed us to care for them in their old age? Or if, sometime in the future, we wanted to return to India to live? I needed to be sure this was the right decision. That this was the path God had set me for me.
“It’s like a sign,” I told John. “A big patriotic American flag. It feels important that I get one.”
“Okay,” John said. “If that’s what you need.” To him, everything was settled.
Second guessing? That’s my department. There wasn’t much time. The ceremony was only eight days away. It would be a huge festive occasion in Philadelphia’s Center City, I imagined, not far from Independence Hall—much like when our older daughter, Miriam, had taken her oath. And the day before the ceremony, Miriam would be graduating from college. I’d be busy with preparations for her party. Still, how hard could it be to find a flag?
From the time I was a young girl, I’d admired this symbol of America. I would see the flag at the U.S. embassy or American-based relief agencies—places dedicated to helping people—and feel my heart stir. To me the Stars and Stripes was more than simply beautiful; it represented freedom and equality. A country where every person, regardless of background, could contribute and be valued.
I had long dreamed about how incredible it would be to actually live in America, even if only for a year or two. Not that our lives weren’t full as the 1990s drew to a close. John and I lived in Chennai, a coastal city in southeastern India, close to our families. I taught science at the American International School. John had started his own aquaculture business, farming shrimp. We delighted in raising our young daughter, Miriam. One day in 1999, I saw an ad in the newspaper. School districts in the U.S. were looking for science and math teachers. I thought of the stories my students had told me about the States, and those of the American missionaries who’d come to our church growing up.
“I have to apply,” I told John.
“Why?” he asked. “What’s wrong with how things are?”
Just like my needing that flag, I didn’t have a clear answer. Just a feeling.
John relented. I sent in my résumé. After 18 months of waiting and worrying, interviews and paperwork, I got a job and a work visa allowing my entry into the United States. I’d be teaching high school science in Chester, Pennsylvania, outside Philadelphia.
I arrived in November 2000 with $300 and two suitcases. Right away the surprises came, and they were daunting. I learned the hiring firm would be taking a sizable chunk of my paycheck. Like many urban school districts, Chester had its share of challenges, which were all new to me. The first day of school, there was a line out the door. I was shocked to see that students had to walk through metal detectors and security checks to get to class. The kids in my classes wore hardened expressions. “We went through four teachers last year. How long are you going to last?” one boy taunted.
I was scared, but I knew I couldn’t show it. “I’m not going anywhere,” I said. “I’m hoping you’ll be here too.”
These students had never had a teacher who stuck it out. Slowly, I gained their trust. They started listening, asking questions, learning.
I found a church in Philadelphia. Several Indian families were among the membership. Their care and concern made my homesickness bearable.
Back in Chennai, John’s aquaculture business was struggling. After months of prayer, we decided our future was in America. He and Miriam came over in August 2001. The only job John could find was working as a convenience store clerk. In 2003, we celebrated the birth of our second daughter, Rachel. Our finances got even tighter. Was staying in America the right decision?
Still, like many immigrants before us, we persevered. John became the director of our church preschool, then started his own preschool. We received our green cards, recognizing us as permanent residents. After 12 years at Chester High, I became an adjunct college instructor. I took pride in the road we’d taken, in our hard work and sacrifices. The more I read about American history, the more our story felt as if it was part of this great country’s DNA. The American dream was real!
Finally, in 2015, we were eligible for citizenship. I downloaded the lengthy application. Several nights a week, we did practice quizzes on the 100 civics questions. Rachel, a citizen by birth, was our examiner, a job she relished.
We submitted all the forms and documents. USCIS scheduled our interviews for a Wednesday in late April 2016.
I sat in a small room across from the examiner. Her face remained expressionless when I answered her questions, so I had no idea how I was doing on the test. My heart was pounding by the time she asked, “Why do you want to become a U.S. citizen?”
I closed my eyes briefly and thought of our journey. “We came to this country to fulfill our dreams,” I said. “And we have been blessed in ways we could have never imagined. I want to be able to participate in every way, to give back.”
She wrote it down, stone-faced. Then she lifted her head. “You’ve passed,” she said. “There’s a naturalization ceremony in Philadelphia this Friday.”
I’d taken a day off for the interview. I couldn’t miss another day that week. “Is there a different one I can go to?” I asked.
“You’ll be notified,” she said.
Miriam took the oath at the ceremony in Philadelphia. John went to cheer her on. They came home wide-eyed at the pageantry, just a few blocks from where the Declaration of Independence had been signed. I couldn’t wait to experience it for myself.
Weeks passed. No notice. I worried our paperwork had been lost or, worse, the examiner had changed her mind.
Then finally we had our date. But I couldn’t relax. Please, Lord, I need to be sure this is the path you want us to take, I prayed. I wanted everything to be just right. If only I could find the perfect flag! Somehow that would reassure me.
The local stores had only little handheld flags. They wouldn’t do. Others I saw online were huge, the kind you’d fly on a pole, and we didn’t have time to put one up. There were flag-themed clothes. Bandanas. Earrings. Everything except the sign I’d asked for. Was God telling me something?
Getting ready for Miriam’s graduation and her party kept me too busy to dwell on my fears. A couple days before the naturalization ceremony, John asked, “It’s in Philly, right?”
“Of course,” I said. I checked the letter to be sure. And that’s when I saw the words I’d somehow managed to over look. Venue: Yeadon Public Library.
Yeadon was a town a half hour away. Nice enough, but of no great historical significance. And the library? Really? John shrugged. I couldn’t hide my disappointment. I hadn’t found the right flag. Now everything felt wrong.
On Saturday, June 11, we drove to Yeadon early. The streets were quiet. At the library, we went through the security check and submitted our letters from USCIS. We sat down at a table. People trickled in until the room was packed. We waited an hour. Then another hour.
“I think there’s been a mistake,” I whispered to John. He shook his head, his eyes saying: Don’t make a fuss.
At last a man from the Yeadon mayor’s office introduced himself. “In a few minutes, we will walk to Kerr Field,” he said. He must have seen the confusion on everyone’s faces. “Though the holiday is on June 14, today is Yeadon’s Flag Day celebration,” he explained. “We honor the American flag and what it stands for.”
We walked out of the library into a town transformed. People lined the streets, nearly all of them hoisting small flags like the ones I hadn’t wanted to buy. Ahead of us a marching band boomed out “Stars and Stripes Forever,” led by a drum major with an enormous flag. We were swept up into the parade. The crowd cheered. I looked at John, his face filled with wonder—a mirror image of my own, I’m sure.
The perimeter of Kerr Field was lined by giant flags, their stripes seeming to stretch as far as the eye could see. I felt like a little girl again, moved to dream of America. In the middle of the field, a large stage had been erected with a massive flag as its backdrop.
After the national anthem, the mayor of Yeadon, Rohan Hepkins, welcomed us. He too was a naturalized citizen and shared his story. He introduced Thomas Kerr. For 67 years, Thomas’s grandfather, William Kerr, had petitioned Congress to set aside a day to commemorate the country’s adoption of the flag, on June 14, 1777. In 1949, President Truman invited him to the ceremony declaring June 14 a national holiday.
At last we stood, immigrants from 14 countries, and took the oath to become American citizens: “...I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States...” I looked out at those beautiful flags waving in the breeze, my heart and soul stirred as never before. So often, in pursuing my dream, I’d felt lost and afraid. Yet time and again, God had put me where I was meant to be, down to this very spot. The proof was all around me.
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