Bangladesh. Myanmar. Benin. Somalia. Haiti. Ireland. South Sudan. Iraq.
One by one, 59 immigrants from 29 countries rise before a federal judge in a Kansas City, Mo., courtroom and proudly state their country of origin.
Some have brought their young children, who watch from the audience. All look eager and intent. This is a big moment: They are about to become U.S. citizens.
In 2017, hundreds of thousands of immigrants are expected to be naturalized as U.S. citizens in ceremonies around the country, much like this one.
Judge Arthur Federman looks out at the rows of faces and smiles. "It's rare that we have an occasion in the courthouse where everyone leaves happy," he tells them. "Hopefully, this will be one of those days."
Erkin Rahimov, 54, and his wife, Limara, 42, are sitting in the front row, along with Erkin's 26-year-old daughter from his first marriage, Sabikha. Erkin and Limara immigrated to the U.S. from Uzbekistan; Sabikha came from Ukraine, where she was raised by her mother. All three will become citizens today.
The evening before the ceremony, the Rahimovs invite us to join them for dinner at their home, a spare, tidy duplex in Kansas City, Mo.
Limara has prepared a feast: the flavors of Uzbekistan, transported to the Midwest. There's rice pilaf studded with beef: "The Uzbek national dish!" Limara explains. Also on the table: a tangy beet salad, pickled cabbage, eggplant and homemade bread. Limara pours green tea from a beautiful Uzbek teapot hand-painted and enameled deep blue and gold. "We don't have guests often," their son Murad says, "but when we do, we give it our all."
And the Rahimovs have much to celebrate.
In 2009, after many years of trying, Erkin and Limara won the green card lottery to immigrate to the U.S. So, in March 2010, they left behind their life in Uzbekistan, a harsh authoritarian state. They landed in Kansas City with their two sons — 6-month-old Rasool and 9-year-old Murad — and not much else.
"I remember when we came to Kansas City with two small kids and three suitcases. It was challenging," Erkin recalls. "The first days we were sleeping on the carpet. We just put sheets on it." For pillows, they used their clothes. Then, he says, "slowly, slowly we started to work and buy some stuff."
Now, after seven years in the U.S., the Rahimovs own their home. They recently bought property outside the city where they plan to go on weekends and grow fruits and vegetables.
They just leased a new car, a Hyundai Elantra.
Erkin is a civil engineer. He works for a Canadian company that makes harvesting equipment, traveling throughout Missouri and Arkansas to train dealers and mechanics.
Limara taught math and physics in Uzbekistan. Now she works with children at an after-school program, and she is studying for a degree in computer science.
Their sons are thriving. Rasool, now 7, is a Pokémon fiend and has test scores above grade level.
Sixteeen-year-old Murad, who spoke no English when he arrived in the U.S., is an honors student on an accelerated track through high school. He loves astronomy; his dream is to work for NASA.
"It's amazing that my parents managed to get me and my little brother here for us to have a really bright future ahead of us," he says. "I'm really proud of my parents!"
When Erkin and Limara become U.S. citizens, their children, Rasool and Murad, will automatically become citizens, too.
The Rahimovs say they've always felt welcome in this country. By way of example, Erkin tells this story: One day, soon after the family arrived in Kansas City, Murad missed the bus to elementary school and came home crying. The school principal, hearing about the mishap, came by in his own car to pick Murad up and ferry him to school so he wouldn't miss a day. "It was amazing," Murad says. "He's just a really good person."
Even though the Rahimovs came to the U.S. as legal permanent residents with green cards, the step of becoming citizens carries real meaning for them. They'll be able to vote, and, as Limara puts it, "take part in the fate of the country."
Looking forward to the ceremony, Limara says, happily, "We will be, I think, real Americans, right? We will be part of the United States."
Asked what America symbolizes to him, Erkin replies instantly: "Freedom. Freedom! Even my name means freedom." He explains that erkin, in Uzbek, is translated as independent or free.
Erkin and Limara Rahimov share a family history etched with sadness.
They each have parents who were Crimean Tatars. They were among the Tatars who were forcibly deported from Crimea in 1944 in a mass expulsion, on orders of Josef Stalin.
The Rahimovs know well that freedom is something to be cherished.
On the morning of the naturalization ceremony, the Rahimovs arrive at the courthouse. Erkin is wearing a somber suit and tie; Limara, an elegant black wool dress.
Sabikha has flown in from New Jersey late the night before to join them in becoming citizens. She is a financial analyst with an M.B.A. and recently took a job with a company in New Jersey.
"Almost to the finish line, right?" Sabikha says as they approach downtown. "Well," she adds, laughing, "maybe just new beginning actually!"
Inside courtroom 8C at the Charles Evans Whittaker U.S. Courthouse, the 59 citizens-to-be wait expectantly. They've already been through months of preparation: They've been fingerprinted, had background checks, been interviewed and have taken an English and civics test.
Now the final step of the process has come. They raise their right hands and in unison, recite the oath of allegiance, pledging to support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States.
A chorus of global accents fills the room.
"Congratulations!" says Federman. With that oath complete, they are officially U.S. citizens.
For Federman, conducting these ceremonies has special resonance.
As he tells the immigrants, he is himself the child of naturalized citizens.
His parents survived the Holocaust and Nazi concentration camps and went on to forge a new life together in America.
"We need to recognize that we are a nation of immigrants," Federman tells the courtroom. "And in the same way I told you my family story, I hope that you will tell your story to us and to our children, so that we can all appreciate the great diversity that makes up our country."
As Erkin Rahimov listens to the judge's words, he gently dabs away tears that roll down his cheeks.
"Thank you very much for being my fellow citizens," Federman concludes, "and for pledging today as you did to uphold our Constitution and the freedoms it guarantees to each of us."
Soon after, the Rahimovs leave the courthouse, their eyes sparkling. They've already registered to vote and are holding copies of the Constitution and small American flags.
"I'm so excited!" Sabikha says, gleefully. "I want to make this country better. It gave so much to me. I want to give back."
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Let's head out now to the center of the country, to Kansas to be precise. That's where we have reached our colleague Melissa Block. She is just starting out on a road trip that will take her all over the country over the next few months. She'll be profiling communities, big ones, small ones.
Melissa, you are in Kansas now. Where exactly are you?
MELISSA BLOCK, BYLINE: We have pulled off the side of the road, Rachel, in Gas, Kan., of all places. We wanted to start this road trip in the heartland of the country. We're launching this series of stories that we're calling Our Land, and we're really looking for a sense of how people's identity is shaped by where they live.
I'm really curious to talk to people about the meaning that people get from their land or maybe the history of the place they're from, how where they're from shapes who they are and how they see the country. And what we hope is that along the way, with these stories, the characters that we meet, we're going to sketch a portrait of who we are as a country at this point.
MARTIN: And you're just starting out on your big journey, Melissa. But you're going to introduce us, I understand, to a family that is embarking on a different kind of journey of their own, right?
BLOCK: That's right. We're about to spend some time with the Rahimov family. They're in Kansas City, Mo., and they welcomed us into their home with a feast from their homeland.
LIMARA RAHIMOV: OK, this is plov. It's Uzbek national dish.
BLOCK: Rice plov with beef, tangy beet salad and pickled cabbage - the flavors of Uzbekistan transported to Kansas City, Mo.
For Erkin and Limara Rahimov, it's the prelude to a big event.
ERKIN RAHIMOV: Tomorrow is a big day for us.
L. RAHIMOV: Very important day tomorrow.
BLOCK: After living in the U.S. for seven years, the Rahimovs are about to become naturalized as U.S. citizens.
E. RAHIMOV: I remember, like, when we came to Kansas City with two small kids and three suitcases (laughter). It was challenging first time.
BLOCK: The Rahimovs got lucky. After years of trying, they finally won the green card lottery to immigrate to the U.S. So in 2010, they left Uzbekistan, a harsh authoritarian state, and landed in Kansas City with their 6-month-old and 9-year-old sons and not much else.
E. RAHIMOV: The first days, we were sleeping on the carpet. We just put sheets on it. And slowly, slowly, we started to work and buy some stuff.
BLOCK: Now they own their home, a spare, tidy duplex in Kansas City. They just leased a new car. Erkin is a civil engineer. He works in product support for a company that makes harvesting equipment. Limara taught math and physics in Uzbekistan. Now she works with kids at an after-school program, and she's studying for a degree in computer science. Their sons are thriving. Rasool, now 7, is a Pokemon fiend.
RASOOL: This one is stronger because it can faint Charizard EX.
BLOCK: Sixteen-year-old Murad, who spoke no English when he arrived here, is an honors student on an accelerated track through high school. He loves astronomy, and his dream is to work for NASA.
MURAD: It's amazing that my parents managed to get me and my little brother here for us to have a really bright future ahead of us. And I'm really proud of my parents.
BLOCK: Even though the Rahimovs came in as legal, permanent residents with green cards, they tell me this step, becoming U.S. citizens, really means something.
L. RAHIMOV: We will be, I think, real Americans, right?
BLOCK: What is it that America symbolizes for you at this point? What is it that you're joining?
E. RAHIMOV: Freedom. Freedom. Even my name means freedom.
L. RAHIMOV: Yes (laughter).
E. RAHIMOV: Erkin. My name is translated like liberty or freedom, Erkin.
BLOCK: So it's part of your DNA.
E. RAHIMOV: Yeah.
BLOCK: Erkin and Limara share a family history that's etched with sadness. They each have parents who are Crimean Tatars. The Tatars were forcibly deported from Crimea in 1944 in a mass expulsion on orders of Joseph Stalin. The Rahimovs know well that freedom is something to be cherished.
AUTOMATED VOICE: Turn left at the traffic light.
BLOCK: The next morning, we head out for the ceremony. Erkin is wearing a somber suit and tie, Limara, an elegant black wool dress. We're joined by Erkin's 26-year-old daughter from his first marriage, Sabikha, a financial analyst with an MBA. She's taken a day off from her new job in New Jersey to become a citizen with them.
SABIKHA RAHIMOV: Almost to the finish line, right? Well, maybe just new beginning actually (laughter).
ARTHUR FEDERMAN: All rise. Hear ye, hear ye, hear ye.
BLOCK: Courtroom 8C at the federal courthouse in Kansas City, Judge Arthur Federman presiding.
FEDERMAN: It's rare that we have an occasion in the courthouse where everyone leaves happy. And hopefully, this will be one of those days.
BLOCK: Before him sit 59 immigrants from 29 countries...
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Bangladesh.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Burma.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: Jordan.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Benin.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: From Mexico.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Somalia.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: Haiti.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: Jamaica.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: From India.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #5: Ireland.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #6: Poland.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #6: South Sudan.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #7: From Iraq.
BLOCK: ...All about to become U.S. citizens. With rapt attention, they raise their right hands and recite the oath of allegiance.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #8: I do hereby declare.
UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: I do hereby declare.
BLOCK: They pledge to support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #8: So help me God.
UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: So help me God.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #8: Congratulations.
FEDERMAN: Congratulations. Please be seated, everyone.
BLOCK: For Judge Federman, this ceremony has special resonance. As he tells the immigrants, he is himself the child of naturalized citizens. His parents survived the Holocaust and Nazi concentration camps and forged a new life in America. As Erkin Rahimov listens to the judge, he gently dabs away tears that roll down his cheeks.
FEDERMAN: We need to recognize that we are a nation of immigrants. And in the same way I told you my family's story, I hope that you will tell your story to us and to our children so that we can all appreciate the great diversity that makes up our country.
BLOCK: Later, as the Rahimovs leave the courthouse, their eyes are sparkling. They're holding copies of the U.S. Constitution and small American flags.
E. RAHIMOV: We are American citizens now.
S. RAHIMOV: I am so excited, and I want to make this country better. It's gave so much to me. I want to give back.
BLOCK: And Rachel, after that ceremony, just about all of those 59 newly minted U.S. citizens walked out of the courtroom and registered to vote on the spot.
MARTIN: Our colleague Melissa Block - she's on the first leg of her reporting road trip. And Melissa, where are you off to next?
BLOCK: We're headed to three cities, all called Independence. We're starting in Independence, Kan.; then we're moving up to Independence, Mo., hometown of Harry Truman; and finally ending up in Independence, Iowa.
MARTIN: I like it. OK, Melissa, we'll talk to you later.
BLOCK: You bet. Thanks, Rachel.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE END OF THE OCEAN'S "VERSES FROM OUR CAPTAIN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.