Letter from Monticello
Marie-Adélaïde Mol was so moved by the July 4 ceremony that she wanted to share her experience with fellow alumni.
Photo courtesy of Marie-Adélaïde Mol.
On Tuesday July 4th, most Americans were anxious for cherry bombs and silver salutes in celebration of Independence Day. On that same day, 69 individuals, representing 39 countries and currently residing in the Western Judicial District of Virginia, had a single thing in mind: their naturalization to — at last — become American citizens.
On the 230th anniversary of American independence, the new citizens took the oath of citizenship on the steps of Monticello, the mountaintop home of Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence.
Artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude, well known for their art installation, “The Gates,” in New York City’s Central Park, addressed the assembly at Monticello’s 44th annual Independence Day celebration and naturalization ceremony.
Elizabeth Stafford, a U.Va. alumna and assistant to the president at Monticello, said that Christo and Jeanne-Claude were chosen to speak at the ceremony because they are both naturalized U.S. citizens and influential environmental artists in our day and time.
Christo was born in Gabrovo, Bulgaria, on the same day Jeanne-Claude was born in Casablanca, Morocco. They met in Paris in 1958 and immigrated to New York City in 1964 with their 4-year-old son, Cyril. They arrived in New York on the S.S. France and have lived at the same address in downtown Manhattan ever since.
After the participants took the oath of citizenship, Judge James Harvie Wilkinson III of the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals greeted and invited the new citizens to step up to the microphone and share what it means to be an American Citizen. “Today is a two-way street,” Wilkinson said, “it is not about us telling you, it’s about you telling us what America means to you … so that we will never ever take this great and wonderful country of ours for granted.”
While each participant’s journey was different, the significance of their naturalization was the same. Becoming an American citizen meant freedom.
The first new citizen to speak was Parigul Lloyd, originally from Afghanistan, who fled the Taliban in 1999. “I’ve been waiting for that day for so many years,” said Lloyd. “This is a safe place for me and I am proud to be American.”
“Today will be one of the most memorable days for me,” Meriem Moussaif from Morocco said.
Catherine Bowles Wharton, born in Zimbabwe, thanked her parents for fleeing the war in Zimbabwe and making sacrifices to move their family to the United States. “I would like to remind everybody how lucky we are to be in a country where there is not war and where there is freedom,” Wharton said with teary eyes.
One audience member, Diana El-Osta, a 2006 graduate of the University of Virginia, was incredibly touched by the ceremony. As her father is a Lebanese immigrant who naturalized several years ago, the ceremony felt very personal, especially because she had not witnessed her father’s naturalization.
“I thought the part of the ceremony where the participants spoke a few words about what it meant to them to become a citizen was especially moving,” El-Osta said. “It made me very proud to be a citizen of this nation and the daughter of someone who had naturalized.”
Other participants preferred not to speak up in front of the assembly but felt blessed nonetheless.
Lébéné Akua Sewordor, 19, from Ghana, did not know Christo and Jeanne-Claude as artists prior to the ceremony.
“I didn’t think much of their speech,” Sewordor confessed, “until [Jeanne-Claude] shook my hand and said ‘Be Happy.’” At that moment, Sewordor realized what her U.S. citizenship represented to her.
“I’ve finally arrived,” Seworder said. “Not by plane but in spirit.”