By J.P. Bak
Special to The News
As I stood among the other 53 newly anointed American citizens at our U.S. naturalization ceremony in May, I was kindly reminded that everyone smiles in the same language.
I am a father, a husband and an entrepreneur who was born in Denmark, but I have lived and worked in the United States since 1998. I raised my family on the West Coast, and I have enjoyed personal and professional success in New York City, Chicago, Pittsburgh and now – most happily – in Buffalo.
It is safe to say that I have lived and breathed the American dream for nearly 20 years, but I have never felt more American than I did on May 25: the day when I – along with so many other smiling faces – became a citizen of the United States of America.
Like many Americans, I had no idea what the U.S. naturalization process looks like, feels like or truly means. I am sharing my story so people can see what a wonderful experience it was for everyone involved.
Our naturalization ceremony, which was conducted beautifully at Buffalo’s federal courthouse with the U.S. District Court and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services on Delaware Avenue downtown, was a human representation of opportunity, perseverance and acceptance. In other words, everything that makes America great.
Judge Michael Kaplan presided over our proceedings with a dignified enthusiasm. He conversed with those who had come to see their relatives become American citizens. He posed with folks for photos. To honor our religious and cultural traditions, Kaplan permitted us to speak in our native language, wear head coverings and opt out of making physical contact (shaking hands with officials) throughout the formal but friendly affair.
I am paraphrasing, but Kaplan said: The U.S. depends on people like you. We hope that each of you will bring your national culture and special traditions from your home country to show Americans how to appreciate and understand who you are and why you’re different – to understand other cultures and enrich their own lives.
His statements were a remarkable representation of the foundations upon which this wonderful nation was built.
During the naturalization ceremony, Kaplan shared words of wisdom from a former U.S. president. Kaplan sampled President Barack Obama’s remarks on immigration from a speech he made on Nov. 20, 2014: “It’s kept us youthful, dynamic and entrepreneurial. It has shaped our character as a people with limitless possibilities. People not trapped by our past, but able to remake ourselves as we choose.”
Attendees included the Friends of Harmony men’s chorus, the League of Women Voters, the U.S. Passport Agency, the International Institute of Buffalo and various court and county clerks – all of whom welcomed our huddled mass with warmth and grace.
Everyone was so embracing. “We are so happy you are a part of us now!” they said. “You are welcome here, and we are here to support you.”
They espoused the virtues of our country, the Constitution and the flag. Instead of telling us that we should be so lucky to be American, they completely flipped the script.
“We’re so happy that you picked the United States for your future,” they told us.
There were cheers and tears and cries of joy. There were audible sighs of relief. The men’s choir sang Louie Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World.” We were shown how fantastic life could be in the United States.
I know that the naturalization process is routine, but to me it felt like the only ceremony that had ever taken place – the very first one! It did not feel like a bureaucratic process by which American citizens are lined up, stamped for approval and sent on their way. No, it was much more personal than that.
America showed a face I have never seen before. I have lived in France, England, Singapore and, of course, my native Denmark. But for the first time in my life I saw what it was like for a society to have a face – many faces – and all of them impossibly happy.
It was like joining a club – the greatest club on earth. For an idea of what it looked like from start to finish, here is how it happened:
• Answering the call. At the beginning, we were all very nervous. Some of us were shaking with apprehension. We were given a white envelope that contained a lot of information about citizenship. Many seemed to be afraid to open it, but as I opened mine, so did another, and then another and then there we were: all of us rediscovering the freedoms afforded to us by the United States of America.
• Crossing the threshold. Our most vulnerable moment came when we were asked to forfeit our green cards – our lifeblood! Our lifeline! But this was probably the most touching moment, too, because there was a quiet pride in our reluctance to let go. And as we listened to the rules and regulations that would guide us through the process – which were delivered with an air of professionalism, kindness and a touch of humor – we were put at ease and gently ushered into the court hall.
• Rebirth and revelation. The judge entered, welcomed us and made his remarks. Then, one by one, he called us to stand up, approach the bench and receive our certificate of citizenship. More smiles. More cheers. More tears. When we turned around we were welcomed by local ambassadors who offered us their hands, a handful of resources and, most enjoyably, a miniature American flag. Finally, we stood with our hands over our hearts and stated the Pledge of Allegiance for the first time as “real” Americans.
• The return. I always felt American, but I feel much more American today. I am part of the community. I have jury duty! I have a voting card! I have a sense of civic responsibility. Without this privilege, I have always been distanced from being an American. But now when I read about politics, I am a part of it. Sure, I’ve discussed politics before, but now I can actually go and vote, which is one of the most important and rewarding aspects of being a U.S. citizen. I feel that I’ve truly become an American through this process – and that’s a big difference.
Why is it so important for me to share this story?
Firstly, I want to let members of our refugee and immigrant population know that they don’t need to be afraid of naturalization. Do not be afraid of the scrutiny it may bring. The people who participate in the process genuinely want to help you, not hurt you. And the emotional welcome you receive will help you develop the most personal relationship with this country – a relationship you may have previously thought impossible. But the impossible is possible in the United States. You can do it!
Secondly, I want to help the general public understand exactly how the process works. In fact, I think every natural-born American should experience naturalization because it tests your knowledge of American history – literally. All naturalized citizens are required to demonstrate a basic understanding of U.S. history, laws and systems during the application process.
Everyone should know about the Constitution, the Senate, the House, the Congress – how the whole big picture is put together and where it all began. Learning more about our country’s Native American origin, for example, was awe-inspiring. In short, a refresher course in U.S. history couldn’t hurt anyone.
In some ways, the United States seems to be moving away from its immigrant heritage, but in many other ways – especially here in Buffalo – we are showing how beautiful, warm and welcoming this country and our community are. The experience has been enlightening, and we should all celebrate it. After all, everyone smiles in the same language.
J.P. Bak is chairman and CEO of Bak USA, a social enterprise that builds mobile computers at a factory on Michigan Avenue in downtown Buffalo.