The 29 individuals — representing 19 countries from around the globe — who sat in anticipation at Madison’s courthouse Friday morning have been living in the country for years, but it wasn’t until now that they finally became official citizens of the United States. The event was closed to the public, but the room still filled with the individuals’ families and friends who excitedly waited to welcome their loved ones as official members of the community.
The ceremony coincided with Welcoming Week, an initiative of Welcoming America, which includes events across the nation aimed at bringing together immigrants, refugees and native-born residents in support and celebration.
While it is easy to see the benefits extending citizenship can grant to immigrants and refugees, the positive contribution that these individuals give to their communities is sometimes overlooked.
“I think one of the things is to realize how much [community members] receive from refugees and immigrants,” said Madeline Uraneck, a leadership council member of Open Doors for Refugees, which helps refugees make a home in the Madison area and organized this morning’s ceremony.
Immigrants and refugees come from all over the world and can bring new experiences and cultures to a community, she explained.
Madison City Council President Shiva Bidar, who herself immigrated to the U.S. and became a citizen in the same room 20 years ago, added that naturalized citizens can be even more passionate contributors to society because citizenship isn’t something they automatically receive.
“I think if people knew the words that are in [the citizenship oath] and the process that [immigrants and refugees] go through they would understand why immigrants [and refugees] are so committed to this country because you don’t take anything for granted,” she said.
Although Friday’s ceremony welcomed people who have already been apart of American society for many years, without official citizenship they were unable to capitalize on rights that many U.S.-born citizens could take for granted — like voting.
In a speech at the ceremony, Bidar expressed her love for America, but admitted that immigrants and refugees have a complex experience in being a part of it and urged these new citizens to use their new right to make a difference for themselves.
“The struggles of first generation immigrants are often overlooked in this country. We are forever caught between two worlds — the country that we left behind, the family we left behind and our new community ... we’ve experienced loss,” she said. “But what we can do to channel that into the positive things we can do now in this country as US citizens.”
Azizur Rahman, one of the 29 new citizens, immigrated to the U.S. a little over five years ago to attend school in New York.
In his five years since leaving his home in Bangladesh, where his wife remains waiting to join him in the U.S., he has only been back to visit for one two-week trip.
“It is what it is — give and take,” he said.
Support from surrounding city and community
City officials and other community members can help foster positive change too, Uraneck said.
“One thing is just advocating to let people know that it’s unacceptable to slam the door on people,” she said.
There is also a growing number of resources in Madison trying to support immigrants and refugees as they settle into the community.
ODFR focuses its work on refugees — especially during individuals’ first year or two in the country — assisting them in finding housing and providing furniture, interpretation, transportation, cultural orientation, English lessons and employment services.
A refugee is someone fleeing their country due to war, violence or persecution. An immigrant is someone leaving their country by choice.
Immigrants may also be facing hardships in their home country, but the difference between the two classifications often comes down to the amount of choice individuals have in leaving.
The Dane County Immigration Affairs Specialist is a new position that has become a key contact point for new immigrants and refugees in connecting them with other services.
Rahman considers himself privileged because his brother and father had already made the move to the U.S. and were able to show him the ropes when he arrived.
“I have seen other people struggling more than I did because they did not have anyone when they came here,” he explained.
In the past year, he moved to Madison to start a job at EPIC. He shared that he was nervous to go somewhere where he had no connections, but that it has not been as tough as he was expecting.
“New York is an immigrant city, of course, and it has a lot of immigrants and everything. But in Madison, people have been more helpful, more welcoming and more warm,” he said.
Both Bidar and Uraneck emphasized the value in listening to and understanding the experiences of immigrants and refugees, not only as a sign of support but because it can simultaneously expand one's cultural awareness.
“[Immigrants and refugees] are such a great contribution to this country because we come from places where we have seen often times terrible things and it makes us really passionate about contributing to a place where there is opportunity and people coming together,” Bidar said.