The Greater Tampa Bay area celebrated World Refugee Day as Neil Diamonds’s iconic “We’re coming to America” song providing an enthusiastic musical backdrop while video displayed iconic images of America and late 19th and early 20th century immigrants as they passed the Statue of Liberty and arrived at Ellis Island.
The joyous event was hosted by Pinellas Technical College in St. Petersburg. The school’s culinary students provided delicious hors d’oeuvres and refreshments for the event attendees. Local social service agencies were there to provide information to the soon-to-be citizens and included our own Catholic Charities Immigration and Refugee Services, led by Program Manager Aziz and his son,
the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), and the Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections among others. Volunteers from multiple agencies, including the U.S. Equal Opportunity Committee, Pinellas Refugee Educational Program, and UNCM Suncoast, assisted everyone as they arrived in the auditorium.
The Master of Ceremonies was Bay News 9’s senior anchor Al Ruechel, while guest speakers included Mayor Rick Kriseman along with several other local dignitaries. After recognizing two local ESL teachers from Belcher Elementary who teach English to the children of newly arriving refugee families for their outstanding work and dedication, the audience was treated to an emotional video produced by the colleges’ students. The video featured the moving stories of six refugees who settled locally from the former Yugoslavia (2), Cuba (2), Uganda and Iraq. These individuals were recognized after the video.
Thirty people, ranging from a teenager to a blind octogenarian, proudly readied themselves to participate in the ceremony. They hailed from 15 different countries: Belarus, Serbia, Ukraine, Viet Nam, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Iran, Iraq, Cuba, Colombia, Iran, Sri Lanka, Turkey, Haiti, El Salvador, and the Dominican Republic. First, the national anthem was sung beautifully, followed by the testimony of a one-time Vietnamese refugee, Tarpon Springs K-9 police officer Nguyen, followed by remarks from officials of the USCIS Tampa Field Office. Finally, the 30 stood for the moment of truth. As they recited the Oath of Allegiance, many in the audience teared up. After the oath, a video from President Obama welcoming these 30 individuals as U.S. citizens was played and finally, the entire audience stood to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. Each of the 30 individuals processed to the front of the room where they received their citizenship certificate from the USCIS Southeast Regional Director, were photographed, and proceeded to celebrate with family and friends as official citizens of the United States of America. At last, this phase of their long journey was complete!