September 24, 2018

Haters, meet Najia

“I wanted to become someone,” the young Afghani woman told me, matter-of-factly. “I wanted to grow.”

Najia Sarwari — intense dark eyes, flawless olive skin, long black hair — was standing in the lobby of the National Archives in Washington, D.C. Five years earlier, she couldn’t leave her home in Kandahar without permission, or without covering her hair and face. But Najia had just become a U.S. citizen. Five minutes earlier, I’d watched Najia raise her right hand and swear allegiance to the United States of America. 

“I hereby declare, on oath, that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state or sovereignty of whom or which I had heretofore been a subject or citizen,” were the words uttered first by Leon Rodriguez, director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. “That I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic.” 

And Najia repeated after him. 

Thirteen more new Americans also took the oath at the same time. While my iPhone captured a video of Rodriguez — himself the grandson of Turkish Jews who fled to Cuba — I watched the immigrants’ faces. Some cried. Some smiled. Most paid careful attention, pronouncing every word like a magic spell.

“Congratulations,” Rodriguez said, “you are now Americans.”

The audience applauded. The new citizens waved little plastic Stars and Stripes flags. The ceremony was short and simple. It was also one of the most moving I have ever witnessed.

Election 2016 has been fueled by anti-immigrant fervor — not just against illegal immigrants from Mexico, but against legal immigrants who happen to be Muslim, like Najia. The debate ignores three facts. First, net immigration from Mexico is down — there is no illegal immigration crisis. Second, there can be no religious test for citizenship. Third, immigration is not just what makes America great, it’s what makes America, period.

Every American should be required to watch a naturalization ceremony. I happened to witness Najia’s because Uri Herscher, founder and president of the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles, was being honored at the same ceremony, and I happened to be in Washington at the time. 

Herscher, who was born in Tel Aviv in 1941, received the Outstanding American by Choice Award, given to immigrants who have made an outstanding contribution to American society. Herscher, a board member of TRIBE Media Corp., parent company of the Jewish Journal, arrived in the United States on a cargo ship on March 24, 1954 at age 13. His parents, refugees from Nazi Germany, where his grandparents perished, went first to Israel, then came to the U.S. He went on to earn his rabbinic ordination and a doctorate. He later founded the Skirball, a cultural center dedicated to the common values of America and Judaism. One of the most important of those values, Herscher said, is welcoming the stranger.

“The warmth of that American embrace has never left me,” Herscher said in his acceptance speech. “Immigration is America’s greatest resource, and its greatest promise. America needs people to come from all over the globe, to make America flourish.”

I watched the faces of the immigrants as they listened to Herscher. They had come from Denmark, Israel, Guatemala, Ethiopia, Algeria, Venezuela, the Dominican Republic, and included a Private First Class in the United States Army, from Trinidad and Tobago. I wondered if they were visualizing themselves in Herscher’s shoes one day, surrounded by a large, loving family, on the far side of his immigrant journey. 

George Washington, Herscher reminded them, said America was open “not just to the opulent stranger, but to the oppressed of all nations and all religions.” 

Like, for instance, Najia.

Afterward, I stopped Najia on her way out to learn her story. She was standing beside her husband, who was dressed in an impeccable dark suit and tie for the occasion. Najia’s husband is an Afghani-born U.S. citizen who met Najia in Afghanistan and brought her stateside on Jan. 10, 2009. She couldn’t wait to come to America.

“After second grade, I couldn’t go to school,” she explained, because of the Taliban. “I wanted to read something.”

She arrived not knowing a word of English. Najia took English classes at night. During the day, she worked the makeup counter at  Macy’s in the Pentagon City Mall.  She said she became an expert in all things Chanel.

I asked her, now that she’s an American, what she wants to do.

“I want to be a makeup artist for actresses,” Najia said, with utter certainty. “I want to become someone — in freedom.”


Rob Eshman is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. Email him at robe@jewishjournal.com. Follow him on Twitter at #RobEshman.