On July 29th, 2016, I became a US citizen. The immigration officer presiding over the ceremony said that this would be a second birthday for everyone taking the oath that day. “Except on this birthday you won’t get any older,” she chuckled out a worn-out joke. Perhaps it was a second birthday. But it was also a moment of death. Something inside of you dies when you raise your right hand and, choking on tears, mumble “I pledge allegiance…”
For several weeks before the oath, I would choke up any time when I tried to practice it. On the day of the ceremony, I told myself not to cry. When stubborn tears were streaming down my face, I told myself not to lose control. When sobs shook my body, all I could tell myself was to cry as quietly as possible not to get kicked out of the courtroom. Thankfully, I was not the only one crying. Everyone who came to the front to share their experiences of becoming a US citizen had to reach out for the tissues handed to them by the immigration officer. Quiet sobs from the audience assured them that we were in this sea of tears together.
Many people beam with pride when they look at crying immigrants. “They are so happy to become the citizens of this great country that they cannot contain their joy.” For many people, it is the case.
It was not for me.
For many years, I was torn by the aggressive US imperialism, US hypocrisy called “democracy,” and the endless injustice I saw around me. Injustice drowned in compulsive consumerism, political complacency, and deep divisions. “Divided States of America” is how I called the US to myself.
For many years, I could not imagine myself pledging allegiance to the country that used drones to bomb unsuspecting civilians in its “War on Terror.” I could not imagine pledging allegiance to the country that invaded Iraq under the false premises of “Weapons of Mass Destruction” and sent it into the abyss of violence and disorder. I could not imagine pledging allegiance to the country that supported a violent conflict in Syria that displaced millions of people, caused a refugee crisis in Europe, and then turned a blind eye on thousands of civilian deaths. I could not imagine pledging allegiance to the country that was training rebels that were turning over to ISIS. The unstoppable violence against so many countries – and I am only writing about some of the conflicts of the last 15 years – made it hard for me to say that I could identify myself as a US citizen.
I could not imagine pledging allegiance to the country that has the highest incarceration rates in the world, that has the highest rates of deaths from gun violence and yet does nothing to change this situation, that has such high levels of police brutality against people of color that #BlackLivesMatter protests now take place not only in LA and DC but also in London and Sydney. I could not imagine pledging allegiance to one of the richest countries that also has one of the highest child poverty rates in the world and one of the most unequal educational systems among the developed nations.
How did I end up in that courtroom then? In the fall of 2015 and early 2016, I watched Bernie Sanders’ campaign and listened to his message of equality, justice, and peace. For the first time in my life, I could imagine pledging allegiance to this country. It was not the US I saw; it was the US that this man envisioned. Call me naïve if you want, but for me, it was truly a future to believe in. His words gave me hope, faith, and courage. Three days before my citizenship oath, Bernie Sanders moved that the convention suspends its rules and nominates Hillary Clinton for the President of the United States. The email leaks that emerged only days before the convention made it clear that there was little justice in the primaries and in the final selection of the presidential nominee. It broke my heart to see Sanders’ supporters silenced during the convention and ignored by the mainstream media in its aftermath.
When I cried during the ceremony, I cried over these injustices. “The land of the free and the home of the brave” sounded like a sarcastic commentary on so many of this summer’s events.
But I also cried over the injustices that brought me here in the first place.
In that courtroom, more than anywhere else in the world, I felt most acutely how much I have been robbed of the opportunities to have a life and a home in the place where I was born. The desperate poverty that my family, my neighborhood, and, with the exception of a few criminals, the rest of Ukraine (and most recently Russia) slid into, is hard to put in words. The part of town where I grew up used to house the workers from nearby factories and plants. With the shutdown of all industries, the levels of unemployment, poverty, crime, alcoholism, and drug abuse spiked up to unprecedented levels. The spread of AIDS reached alarming rates. Friends from school were dying from overdoses and from getting shot by fellow gang members. None of this was a part of life of this community in years prior to the collapse of the USSR in 1991. In the decade that followed the collapse, my mother was proud that once a day we still had a meal with some meat in it. Other families we knew could no longer afford even that. When I started university, I started working. I earned my own money and was proud that I could buy my own clothes. I was a proud owner of one pair of pants, one skirt, and two tops. I also had a pair of jeans and two summer dresses. That’s what a good life was like.
Amidst all of this, like many other citizens of the former USSR, I dreamed of this place called America. What did I know about it? Only what I saw in soap operas like “Santa Barbara” and “Beverly Hills, 90210.” Only what I read in Stephen King’s and Danielle Steel’s novels. Only what I learned at the university as an English major, memorizing basic facts about the US government, economy, history, political system, and literature (which made studying for the citizenship exam significantly easier, by the way). But apart from that, I knew very little.
The little I did know was just enough to dream of coming here.
Six months after I arrived in the US as an exchange student, I watched in disbelief George W. Bush announce the beginning of the “Operation Iraqi Freedom” and the US jets drop bombs on Baghdad. Incredulous, I listened to Americans around me cheer for this unjustifiable act of violence. I just turned 20. My American Dream began to turn sour.
In years since then, I learned how the US imposed the doctrine of “shock therapy” on the former USSR and destroyed the economies of most countries in that region. The introduction of market mechanisms into the countries that were not prepared for capitalism created uncontrollable levels of corruption and ultimately led to the emergence of oligarchic states where most people have few rights and few protections. Through arguments with a political scientist at an American university, I learned that the poverty that I grew up in was not an accident of history, but rather an orchestrated attempt to ensure that Russia and the former USSR could not come back to power. No matter how homesick I felt through most of my life, I have had no home to return to. All that was left of my home was the rubble from the US ambition to dominate the world.
As I sat in that courtroom, crying, I thought not of all the opportunities that this citizenship made possible for me, but of all the injustices that robbed me of a good life elsewhere.
The arrival of the blue passport with my face and my name in it sealed the deal. The passport made me realize that what died in me in that courtroom was the hope to belong and to have a place I could gladly call home. Perhaps exile is the only home I will ever have. But it also reminded me that being a US citizen means that now I have the right to take the position of critique and speak up against the injustices I see. Now, no one can tell me to go back home to my country when I voice concerns over the US foreign and domestic policies. This citizenship, along with the state of permanent exile, gives me the right to speak truth to power and to engage in the struggle for a more equal, just, and peaceful world to come.