Esam Boraey pictured in a Hartford courthouse on the day he became an American citizen. (Emma Wilson/Courtesy)
By ESAM BORAEY
SPECIAL TO HARTFORD COURANT
SEP 06, 2020 AT 6:00 AM
On Aug. 10, I walked to a courthouse in Hartford, filled with excitement and ready to start a new chapter of my life with certainty and pride. Seven years after I arrived in the United States, I had finally made it to my naturalization interview.
I spent the weeks before preparing — from my outfit to studying for the civics test, no detail went unchecked. I even selected a special pen to use to sign my naturalization certificate. It was the day I had fought for years to make possible, and I wanted everything to be perfect.
But thanks to COVID-19, nothing about the process was how I had imagined. For that matter, the realities of American democracy are different today from what I had imagined as a boy in Egypt.
But neither the process nor the reality of democracy is any less important to me.
The first time I attended a naturalization ceremony was in 2018, as a staff member for the Connecticut state Senate. I walked to the room to see everyone holding the flag and their copy of the U.S. Constitution. Everyone in the room stood for the national anthem, then the new naturalized stayed standing, raised their right hands to take the oath and covered their hearts with their hands, gazing proudly at the United States flag as they recited the Pledge of Allegiance.
As soon as they were done, the room erupted in applause, with family members, friends, elected officials and even federal agents celebrating with them.
Naturalization ceremonies are filled with emotions. That day, I got to stand next to a new citizen who had immigrated to the United States from Eastern Europe. He was holding his 3-month-old daughter, and tears fell down his face as he told her, “I am as happy today as the first time I met you.”
I asked him to explain, and he told me, “Today I feel safe — I am not afraid anymore, because I have a country to protect me.”
Later, everyone took their certificate and went to the back of the room to apply for their passports and register to vote at the same time.
My naturalization process was filled with emotion, too, but it was dramatically different from the ceremonies I had experienced before. I arrived at the courthouse alone, while my family waited anxiously at home. Because of COVID-19 restrictions, guests are now prohibited at naturalization interviews and ceremonies. The only person I was allowed to bring with me was my attorney.
Instead of the room filled with fellow prospective citizens, I sat alone, with two empty seats between every person in the waiting room. When it was time for my interview, I had to conduct it from behind Plexiglas, my accented English muffled by the mask covering my face as I answered each question. When the federal agent informed me that my application had been approved, there was no one there to celebrate with me. The day was overwhelming and depressing.
My journey to becoming a United States citizen was not something I ever imagined. This country welcomed me as a political asylee in 2013, when I fled my native Egypt after being sentenced to prison for working for a human rights organization to develop democracy and fight for free and fair elections.
When I arrived in Washington, D.C., in 2013, I had one suitcase, no money and barely spoke English. I had no idea where to go, but knew I would likely never be able to return to Egypt. I knew from the moment I stepped off the plane that this country could be my chance at freedom — if I had the courage to fight to survive.
I learned English and started getting involved in politics, going on to work on campaigns all over the country. At the end of every campaign, I would get the inevitable question: “Did you vote?” My answer was always the same: “No, unfortunately, I’m not a citizen — I can’t vote.”
I had been dreaming of this moment for years, and at times I feared it would never come. When my political asylum case took three years to process due to backlogs in the system, I was terrified I would be deported and forced to return to an Egyptian prison. But now, all that fear and worry are gone. I am officially an American citizen. I understand that Eastern European father’s tears and the relief he felt as he was sworn in. I know I am finally free — I know I can’t be arrested for holding a meeting, organizing a rally or trying to run for office. I haven’t always had these freedoms, and I cherish them.
But, as they say, freedom isn’t free. Sometimes you have to fight for it.
In Egypt, I fought for democratic ideals. Then I fought to become an American citizen. And now I, as an American, will continue to fight for those same ideals, which are increasingly under threat.
American democracy these days feels a bit like that room where I sat waiting to become a citizen — socially distanced, measured not just by chairs or in feet but culturally and politically. As a Muslim immigrant, I feel distanced enough already, but President Donald Trump’s Muslim ban and the increasingly vitriolic America-first rhetoric from some parts of the political right make the distance feel even wider.
Still, I am free ― free to stand up for the ideals that brought me here in the first place.
Esam Boraey is an Egyptian political activist, a public policy graduate student at UConn and a board member of the World Affairs Council of Connecticut. He holds a master’s degree in international relations from Cairo University.
Connecticut Council on Interreligious Understanding (CCIU) is proud to have Esam on our Board