Anis Akram was an exchange student who traveled from Pakistan to study in South Dakota in 2003.
Despite dodging questions from classmates about whether he rode a camel to school, Akram said his year in America inspired him to work hard and find a way to be a citizen.
On Thursday, Akram and 75 other people from more than 35 countries took their oaths of citizenship at the annual naturalization ceremony at Monticello.
“I started all the way from all the way at the bottom, and today I am a business owner,” Akram said. “Would this have been possible over there? Probably not.”
A fellow Pakistani and naturalized U.S. citizen, Khizr Khan, offered the keynote address for the ceremony, which noted America’s difficult past and present history and urged U.S. citizens to use their voting and free speech rights to expand freedom for others.
“As soon-to-be newly minted citizens, you must remember to register to vote today,” Khan said, adding that naturalized citizens, African Americans, Native Americans and women did not get to vote until long after 1776. “Your country has bestowed the highest honor, the honor of citizenship upon you. It is your duty now and in every election moving forward to vote, to remain engaged in your communities and to seek elected office.”
America’s newest citizens said they were motivated by the desire to join family in the U.S., get better jobs, participate in U.S. elections and improve life for other residents.
“It’s the duty of a citizen to fight for the country we have been promised,” said Kibiriti Majuto, a graduate of Charlottesville High School and Piedmont Virginia Community College, referencing immigrant children kept in chain-link cells near the U.S.-Mexico border after crossing unaccompanied or with their parents. “It’s our responsibility to fight so that no child is locked in cages and fight for climate justice, racial justice, sexual justice and justice for everyone.”
Khan, a resident of Charlottesville, was born in Pakistan and cites reading U.S. founding documents as his inspiration for pursuing American citizenship. He and his wife, Ghazala, immigrated to the United States in 1980 and became citizens six years later. He still thinks of his citizenship oath every day, he said.
In 2004, one of his children, University of Virginia graduate and U.S. Army Capt. Humayun Khan, died while trying to stop a suicide bomber in Iraq. Capt. Khan’s actions saved the lives of more than 100 soldiers, and he was posthumously awarded a Purple Heart and the Bronze Star.
To honor others’ sacrifice and honor their vows, he told the audience, citizens must strive to help other residents of the U.S. and speak up when any part of the government infringes upon human rights.
“We believe in equal dignity, as enshrined in the Bill of Rights,” he said. “We believe in the dignity of asylum seekers separated from family and caged at the border, which reminds us of concentration camps during the Second World War. We join with one voice to say the current program is fundamentally opposed to our nation and our values.”
U.S. District Judge Michael Urbanski administered the oath of citizenship and offered each new citizen a handshake.
“Today you join a new family, our American family,” he said, a sentiment many new citizens echoed.
“I am blessed to have a whole new family,” said Sonnika Bailey, originally from Guyana. Adding after the ceremony: “I’ve always wanted to do nursing, and I think a lot of doors will be open for me now.”