The night before, Muna Omar had been too excited to sleep. “I was up almost all night,” she said.
Saturday morning arrived as a bright, sunny fall day. Omar gathered her children from their Doraville home and took them to a small field on the banks of the Chattahoochee River in Sandy Springs.
There, she joined 69 others who had come from communities scattered across Georgia and Alabama to take part in a ceremony that lasted only about an hour, but would change their lives and the lives of their families.
As sunlight glinted on the river, geese honked downstream, and dozens of smiling family members stood and watched, these 70 people renounced their allegiances to their former home countries and became American citizens.
“I’m so happy,” said Omar, who was born in Somalia and had lived a dozen years in the U.S. “I’m new. It’s a very, very big thing for me.”
On Sept. 28, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services celebrated National Public Lands Day by holding its first naturalization ceremony at the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area. People from 35 countries, from Bangladesh to Vietnam and Laos to Liberia, became American citizens that morning.
Naturalization ceremonies usually are held in government office buildings, but immigration officials said they hope the riverside gathering would offer something different. “We thought this was a change of atmosphere,” said Cheryl Johnson, section manager for the Atlanta Field Office of the citizenship and immigration services. The park, she said, provided “the view of the historic land [and] that scenery here.”
Several of the soon-to-be new citizens, who sat on folding or stackable chairs set up in a newly mowed field, endorsed the park setting as they awaited the start of the ceremony. “I like it,” said Balvantkumar Prajapati, who was born in India and now runs a store in Rome, Ga. Segun Oshadige, born in Niger, found the surroundings “calming.”
Occasionally, other park-goers jogged by or walked dogs in the vicinity. A small group launched a big rubber raft from the boat ramp where the field touched river. Deer wandered nearby in the forest. “It’s not what I expected, but it’s OK,” said Margaret Mungei, who was born in Kenya and lives in Hoover, Ala.
Dora Blanco also was pleased. “It’s nice, instead of the four walls of the building,” she said. “We’re actually going to stay and walk around the park afterwards.”
Blanco came to the U.S. from Mexico in 1994, when she was 9 years old. She lived much of her life in the U.S. in Whitfield County, and now lives in Marietta with two young children of her own. “It’s exciting,” she said of becoming a citizen. “It’s something I wasn’t going to do, and then came my children. … You almost can’t believe it’s real.”
Oshadige said he’s lived in metro Atlanta for 30 years. He makes his living driving a cab. Becoming an American citizen, he said, “is the greatest thing that’s ever happened to me.” He wanted to share in freedom and to have “a say in the government,” he said, “a voice.”
Omar said she wanted to be part of the nation where her children were born. They’re all citizens of the U.S. and she wanted to be, too. “It’s my country,” she said. “All my kids were born here. I’m so happy. I’m one of them now.”
Asked why she left the country of her birth behind, she waved off the question. “It was a war,” she said. “Killing and doing bad stuff.” She made it clear she’d rather talk about new beginnings than the past.
During the ceremony, she was overwhelmed with emotion. At one point, a recording of Lee Greenwood’s song, “God Bless The U.S.A.,” played over the loudspeakers. She sang along, then had to stop to wipe away tears. Lensa, her oldest daughter, quietly massaged her mother’s shoulders.
After the ceremony, her children crowded around her, laughing with her and snapping photos with their smartphones. All around them, families recorded the moment with photographs of smiling new citizens posing with their new citizenship papers.
“It’s so great,” Omar said. “It’s unbelievable. It’s priceless.
“I feel like I have a place, like I have a country. I feel like somebody now. It’s a big day for me and my kids.”
She can sleep easier now.