By Anelia K. Dimitrova
An immigrant’s story is never just her own.
In my meandering journey of hopes, dreams, transitions and challenges from my native Bulgaria to Iowa, I have witnessed many a story – some easier told than others – and live my own.
Since I first set foot on U.S. soil 19 years ago, I have always been in the continual state of becoming an American, a lifelong process of intense exploration and enriched perspective.
A week ago Friday, nine years after I took the Oath of Allegiance and swore to “support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic” my father, Kiril Ivanov Dimitrov, at the age of 86, became the newest member of our naturalized family.
America adopted us one at a time – I blazed the trail on Aug. 13, 2001; then my son, Vesko, followed on May 22, 2003; and at long last on Dec. 10, 2010 my dad repeated, “I will,” the sacred words which, uttered after the clerk of court reads the oath of allegiance, turn immigrants into citizens.
Our journeys took different paths: My luck struck at the age of 33, when the fall of the Berlin Wall made it possible for me and many others to take a chance to rebuild their lives on another continent.
I never hesitated to leave as I felt I had to deliver on my dreams and those of my parents, whose lives had been wasted in hopelessness.
After graduate school, I took a one-year post in the Communication Studies Department at the University of Northern Iowa, which eventually turned into a tenured job for me.
My son came here as an 8-year-old and took full advantage of what America has to offer. He graduated from Cedar Falls High School, then from the University of Iowa and finally from Hofstra Law School on Long Island, N.Y. Before launching a career in law, he honed his skills in journalism, working as a print reporter, a television producer and ending his career in journalism in 2009 as the Long Island bureau chief of the New York Law Journal.
My father, the second of five children, lived his formative years in abject poverty in Vidin, a small town on the river Danube, and when his mother died at 33, he and his siblings fought for survival.
My grandfather, Ivan, could not stand widowhood, but took serious pride in putting his kids through college despite destitution, political pressures and several remarriages, which invariably left him a widower.
My father earned a law degree from the University of Sofia in 1955, but because of the political regime and his “bad” roots, was never allowed to practice law in his native country.
But there is poetic justice in his plight: the sense of profound failure and the purposelessness he battled throughout life is richly rewarded by the knowledge that his grandson passed the New York bar on first try and shortly afterwards was admitted to the Federal Eastern and Southern Districts of New York.
In fact, as my dad was being sworn in, his grandson was in front of a judge in Suffolk County, N.Y., defending a client in his adopted country.
What connects the two generations is also another strange and meaningful coincidence—both were sworn in as citizens by Chief U.S. Magistrate Judge Tom Shields, an avuncular man with a dry sense of humor, who himself is a naturalized American.
Naturalization ceremonies for federal judges are the equivalent of adoptions for their state counterparts, Judge Shields said.
“It’s always very special for me to preside at naturalization ceremonies,” he said. “This is an adoption. This country has adopted you. You have adopted us.”
Amidst clicking cameras and rolling video, the only allowed use of electronic devices in federal court, the judge urged the 57 new Americans from 22 countries from Turkey to Togo to Afghanistan to Ghana to Egypt, to keep their traditions and language as they immerse themselves into America’s melting pot.
Families, some with babies, packed the courthouse to the brim to witness the special celebration for their love ones.
My husband Rick and I took a family friend, Dana Yordanoff, with us to Des Moines. As the judge spoke, she cried quietly on and off, reliving her 1969 experience when she became a citizen, but had no family with her during the ceremony.
“Many of you have traveled a long way to be here,” Judge Shields said, adding, lightheartedly, in reference to the number of Sudanese citizens. “In fact, I wonder, is there anyone left in Sudan?”
But the judge’s real message was not lost in the laughter that erupted.
“People born here take for granted all their rights,” he said as many in the crowd nodded. “They don’t vote. I encourage you: get involved in politics. Do what you want as long as it’s legal, I don’t want to see you again.”
Afterwards, the judge shook hands with each newly minted citizen and immigration officer Laura Kenkel gave them their naturalization certificates.
At the end of the day, when we drove up to our house, a friend of ours, Bettina Fabos, and her daughter, Beanie, became a part of our family history. They had adorned my front door with a gigantic American flag and two smaller ones on the side.
“I have lived all my life for this day,” my dad said later that night. “I have my dignity back.”