Gerdili Benjamin Kullei, who is originally from Liberia, said his newly attained citizenship made him feel happy and proud. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle

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In the era of COVID-19, naturalization ceremonies can’t resemble the classic scene: packed courthouses graced by distinguished speakers providing pomp about the new responsibilities of citizenship. 

Instead of one 30-minute ceremony featuring 2,000 new citizens, which was common before now, COVID-19-era naturalization ceremonies start and end in a speedy five minutes. They take place outside. About 10 to 12 new citizens attend each ceremony, which rotate all day, roughly every 15 minutes. New citizens stand on white makeshift paper blocks spaced at least six feet apart, while their family members—those still able and willing to come and support their loved ones during a global pandemic—watch in the background. 

Such is the case this week in downtown Minneapolis, where about 1,400 new citizens caught in a pandemic backlog are finally celebrating their naturalization process this week in the front plaza of the U.S. District Court. The sped-up ceremonies began Tuesday morning and will continue through Thursday afternoon. 

On Tuesday around noon, U.S. Magistrate Judge Hildy Bowbeer was one of many district judges who presided over the ceremonies. Wind blew hard as Bowbeer spoke; noise blared from construction on Minneapolis City Hall across the street. 

“I’ve never lectured a ceremony with so few people,” Bowbeer said at one point during a proceeding. 

But she still made a point to emphasize the importance of what was happening during each mini-ceremony. 

“We need you to join us and turn what’s so often referred to as the American Dream into an American reality,” she said. “The very strength of our nation lies in the diversity of its people. Now America is stronger than it was just a few short minutes ago.”

A dozen people take the oath of U.S. citizenship outside of the U.S. District Courthouse in Minneapolis Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle

Several of the new U.S. citizens who attended the ceremonies spoke to Sahan Journal about their pride in finally obtaining citizenship. And they could hardly ignore the tumultuous times for Minneapolis and the country following the police killing of George Floyd last month. 

“I’m feeling very excited about this moment,” said Ali Alshihmani, who came to the U.S. from Iraq five years ago and has lived in Moorhead, Minnesota, for the past two years. “This is the greatest moment ever in my life.”

Alshihmani, 27, grew up in Baghdad and said he fled to Turkey after terrorists attacked his business. From Turkey, he successfully sought asylum in the U.S. during the tail end of Obama’s presidency. After a few years living in different places—Massachusetts, Washington State, California—Alshihmani came to Minnesota. 

“My cousin recommended that this is a state to go and improve my life,” he said. “And after two years, I see that’s correct.” 

Alshihmani said that the U.S. has its problems. Specifically, he doesn’t like to see both political parties “fight each other.” And he spoke about the “very sad” situation surrounding Floyd’s death. 

“To people who damaged the buildings, I know they’re looking for the right justice,” he said. “But I hope people get the right justice by not breaking the law.” 

Still, he said he was proud to be a citizen of the country. “If I compare between my country, Iraq, and here, absolutely there is a difference.” 

The noise of background construction notwithstanding, the scene during the ceremonies on what is typically one of the busiest office blocks in the city stayed relatively quiet—a sign, perhaps, of the pandemic’s continuing toll on daily life. Some family members and friends of the new citizens who came for support stood and sat scattered throughout the plaza on benches and near its few grassy hills. 

Mohamad Abdif and Sayn Abdif, who are married, expressed similar feelings about the current state of politics in the U.S. 

Sayn, who is from Kenya, came for her own naturalization ceremony. Mohamad said his own citizenship probably remains a few months away. Both had originally been scheduled to attend their naturalization ceremony in March, but the court canceled it because of the pandemic, Mohamad said. 

A woman pledges an oath of allegiance to the U.S. in an outdoor naturalization ceremony in downtown Minneapolis on June 23, 2020. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle

The couple lives in North Dakota and drove four hours to make the ceremony in Minneapolis. 

“I’m excited and I’m happy,” said Sayn, who wore a mask to her ceremony and added that she supported the measures the court took to prevent the spread of the virus. 

Police officers, Mohamad said, have a hard job. But bad officers should be held accountable. Mohamad said he supports peaceful protests against police brutality.

“When you’ve lived in countries where one is peaceful and the other isn’t, you compare them and you see a big difference,” he said. “When you come to a peaceful place, then you will say, ‘OK, now I can go to work; now I can go on vacation.’” 

“Where I come from, we have our own issues”

Eh Thaung Clay, who’s originally from Myanmar but has been living in Minnesota for 13 years, said he was excited to be able to vote in the upcoming presidential election. 

“I feel like I have more freedom,” Clay said. 

Gerdili Benjamin Kullei, 29 and originally from Liberia, said the killing of Floyd “changed a lot of views” of the U.S. from around the world. But he said countries can go through embarrassing moments and emphasized how happy he was to become a citizen today. “I feel proud and grateful,” he said. 

Tsignesh Guanjie, who lives in Minneapolis, said she and her children stayed inside during the week of unrest following Floyd’s death. But she still is happy to become a citizen and, in the grand scheme of things, is living a better life for her children than in their home country of Ethiopia. She entered her family in a lottery six years ago to come to the U.S. and has been living in Minnesota ever since.

“The celebration, even with social distancing, was still nice,” she said of her naturalization ceremony. 

Davy Nguessan, 24, said he never imagined that his naturalization ceremony would be held outdoors and socially distanced. Nguessan, originally from the Ivory Coast, moved to the U.S. in 2013 for better schooling. After a three-year wait, in 2019 he began service in the army through the Military Accessions Vital to National Interest program, which can provide a pathway to citizenship for people who weren’t born in the U.S. 

“It was definitely a long time,” Nguessan said of his process to becoming a citizen. “I feel like it’s a step forward for what I’m looking for.”

Nguessen lived in Dallas before coming to Minnesota in 2018 to start school at Minnesota State University, Mankato. He’s studying cognitive computer science and hopes to work in the tech industry after graduation this winter. 

Tumultuous events like Floyd’s killing happen in every country, he said, and it’s up to people to “sit down and talk about it” and help solve the problem. 

“I grew up somewhere else,” he said. “In that place where I come from, we have our own issues, too.”

Life in the U.S. isn’t limited to its politics, he added. “Whoever’s president, people are still going to get up and go to work. So I just—I don’t focus on that.”

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Joey Peters

Joey Peters is a reporter for Sahan Journal. His work has appeared in Reuters, Public Radio International, Columbia Journalism Review, KFAI Radio, the Pioneer Press, City Pages, MinnPost and more. He previously...