Sunday, April 18, 1999

The ceremony that links all of us together

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        My grandfather slid under the wire. His mother was pregnant when she landed on Ellis Island from Italy. He was born here, an instant American citizen, and his father named him Amerigo. In gratitude.

        He shined shoes in New York, then earned enough money to buy his own kit and staked out his own corner. He moved to the Midwest, where he died a prosperous man.

        That is the American way.

Earthly possessions
        Two generations later, Fadi Al-Ghawi arrived in this country carrying a suitcase strapped together with two belts. It was very old, owned by a man who had nothing better to hold all his earthly possessions. He came here from Beirut 22 years ago.

        Today, Mr. Al-Ghawi has a degree in industrial engineering, a house in Wilmington and a job as a plant manager. He has a wife who likes to brag about him and a son named Aaron who likes to be called Max.

        Padma Chebrolu, who lives in Montgomery, came here as a bride. No money. No job. Nine years later, she is a systems analyst and MBA candidate.

        They stood Friday — 61 of them — in the gymnasium at Three Rivers Junior High School in Cleves, beneath a sign that said “Home of the Falcons,” and became U.S. citizens.

        A little girl, perhaps 3 years old, in a black hat with a red ribbon, danced un-self-consciously to the strains of “America the Beautiful,” played by the school band. The choir sang. It was a very big deal.

        Casual Friday? Not here. People were dressed to the nines. Padma's red, white and blue hair ribbon clashed charmingly with her fuchsia and navy sari.

Rubin's legacy
        The late U.S. District Court Judge Carl Rubin brought the first naturalization ceremony to this school in 1987 at the request of librarian Marney Murphy. “Judge Rubin figured any place that had a judge and an American flag could be a courtroom,” said Magistrate Judge Jack Sherman Jr., who presided.

        Students who passed the same naturalization test as the new citizens were allowed to go to a reception afterward. Lynn Breaker, a sixth-grader from Addyston, said she had a bad moment when she came to the question about the 13 original states.

        “I came up with 14, but I had named New York twice.” I wondered ungenerously how many naturally born adult citizens could name them. I wondered if I could.

        Another sixth-grader, Rebecca Griffiths, was there to watch her mother, Anne, receive the certificate of naturalization. Anne Griffiths came here from New Zealand 24 years ago. So why now?

        “I have been working for school levies, and I couldn't vote for them myself. Now I can.”

        My friend Pat Swinton, formerly general manager of the Westin Hotel who now has a vintage clothing business in Arizona, said the same thing. A Canadian, she came back here for the ceremony because that's where the procedure began in 1996.

        “I want to be part of things,” she said simply. “I want to contribute.”

        Judge Sherman, satisfyingly magisterial in his black robe, said gravely, “You are now citizens of the most ethnically diverse country in the history of this earth. Our striking rainbow of people gives us our strength. This new status will benefit you. And you will benefit your country.”

        That is the American way.


        E-mail Laura Pulfer at lpulfer@enquirer or call 768-8393. She can be heard Monday mornings on WVXU radio (91.7 FM), and as a regular commentator on National Public Radio's Morning Edition and InterMedia's Northern Kentucky Magazine.

        Laura Pulfer's column appears in the Enquirer on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call 768-8393 or fax 768-8340. She can be heard Monday mornings on WVXU radio (91.7 FM), and as a regular commentator on National Public Radio's Morning Edition. E-mail her at