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CELEBRATING FREEDOM

Different Journeys, One Goal

Citizenship: 70 new Americans savor their moment of triumph at Jefferson's Monticello.

July 05, 2002|J.R. MOEHRINGER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — This was the day they thought would never come. Fleeing the Nazis and the Communists and the tanks of Tiananmen Square, dodging bullets and rockets and long knives, escaping civil wars and mass arrests and torture squads, they didn't dream that one day they would be here, standing on this mountaintop, soaring above this valley--free.

Not that this is the Promised Land. They don't believe in promised lands. They didn't know what to expect when they set out for this country, and they weren't always welcomed when they arrived.

The only promise they had in mind was one they made themselves, to try for a little peace and dignity, to risk everything so their children might have a chance at happiness. America was the place that helped them keep that promise, and this mountaintop was where that promise would become a pledge. And Thursday was the day.

It happens every summer. Randomly chosen immigrants living in the Charlottesville area receive an invitation to Monticello, the magnificent white-columned mansion of Thomas Jefferson, to be sworn in as American citizens. The ceremony is meant to be a departure from the norm: Typically, after showing proof of residency, after undergoing background checks, after passing an American history test, immigrants become naturalized in some stuffy courthouse or bureaucrat's office.

But every Fourth of July--the anniversary of Jefferson's death as well as America's birth--the process is transformed into something special, a lavish ceremony with speeches and bunting and hundreds of onlookers, which celebrates America's four centuries of immigration as much as it honors the immigrants themselves.

Ceremony Has Added Meaning This Year

And this year, with America at war, with Americans wary about illegal immigrants in their midst, with every American citizen declared a target by terrorists, the 40th annual Monticello ceremony was sure to take on more meaning. Every immigrant who received an invitation last week knew that becoming a citizen would be an act of bravery as well as a moment of triumph.

The ceremony was scheduled for 11 a.m. Some were there by 5:45. So they had hours to trade stories. Why they left home. How they got here. Each story was different and each was the same. They came from vastly different places and cultures, but they stayed for one reason. America fed their hunger for freedom and made them hungry for more.

Daud Mahmoud's story--which he told carefully, haltingly--begins and ends with the soil. Daud grows things for a living, and when he learned last week that he and his wife, Adela, would be among the 70 men and women from 33 countries being sworn Thursday, his heart opened like one of his prized flowers. He read aloud the letter from the Immigration and Naturalization Service, saying that he and Adela had been chosen, and they grew wild with excitement. A man of routine, Daud tried to focus for the rest of the week on his daily schedule--rise at dawn, exercise, shower, pray, off to work at the green nursery--but it was hard to concentrate.

As a boy in Kabul, Afghanistan, Daud loved his native land and never wanted to leave. Family meant everything to him, and in Kabul he was surrounded by 13 siblings and 100 first cousins. America was a distant planet swimming in a far-off galaxy. If he harbored any ideas of visiting, these were just vague dreams. They didn't become desperate hopes until 1979, when the tanks appeared.

As troops from the Soviet Union came rumbling across the border, many in Daud's world suddenly vanished. Some were killed; others fled into the mountains. A few managed to leave the country, like his brother, who crossed into Pakistan, then onward to America, with his wife and children.

Daud longed to join his brother, but his parents were old. Someone had to stay behind to care for them. "I couldn't leave," Daud said in the voice of a gentle man from a violent place.

Also, Daud had a good job in the ministry of agriculture. He was doing what he loved, studying crops and climate, learning to make things grow. He surveyed his life in Kabul--a family he loved, a house he owned, a fine orchard out back--and he felt rooted to the ground, like one of his apple trees.

Nine years passed. The Soviet invasion stalled. But as the troops pulled back, Afghanistan slid into civil war. The streets around Daud's house crackled with gunfire.

"The rockets was passing our house," Daud said. "Tens of rockets every night. Every second we thought, this rocket's going to hit the house."

Government officials pressured Daud to join the party, join the fight. One of his bosses even waved a pistol in his face. Daud simply kept working, kept making things grow and bided his time.

Husband Decides 'It's Time for Us to Go'

By then his parents had died, so Daud took Adela aside one morning and whispered, "It's time for us to go."

Seven months' pregnant, Adela cringed. But she knew Daud was right.

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