BRUNSWICK, GA. | U.S. District Court is a place with decorum, a place of strict rules.
“All who have business before this honorable court, draw nigh and be heard,” they call out. “Oh yes. Oh yes.”
Meanwhile, sit quietly until the judge calls on you and your lawyer. Once a year, there are days like Thursday when people from foreign countries become U.S. citizens in naturalization ceremonies. Their children laugh and cry and a father will stand in a half crouch, holding a baby in one arm as he trains a cellphone camera on the child’s mother as she becomes an American.
Chief District Judge Lisa Godbey Wood sits on the bench in a ceremonial robe, hand-sewn of red velvet, that belonged to her mentor, the late Anthony A. Alaimo, a former chief judge of the court himself. Alaimo’s family came to the U.S. from Sicily when he was 2, and his portrait looks down from a courtroom wall. His is the only portrait of the judges with an American flag in the background, fitting for a World War II bomber pilot shot down in the North Sea and held as a prisoner of war.
Wood called the naturalization ceremonies “the finest day ever in U.S. District Court …” and her smile seldom left her face.
Before Maliha Nassery took her oath, she looked nervously toward the back of the room and the sound of a familiar cry. Her husband, Akmal Wardak, was holding their 3-month-old son Rayhan and doing his best.
It was feeding time and Rayhan wanted his mother, but he was quiet as Nassery raised her hand and took the oath of citizenship with 21 others. Nassery’s family left Afghanistan for Germany when she was 18 months old and she came to America about five years ago. She speaks fluent English as does Wardak, but he relies on their native tongue to make a living as an interpreter at Fort Gordon.
He translates from afar for, as he puts it, ” the good old people on the ground. We do whatever they need us to do.”
Wardak left Afghanistan 18 years ago when it was, as now, in upheaval.
“Whatever you hear on the news, I’ve done it. The whole nine yards,” he said.
As usual, the new citizens were welcomed by the Sons and Daughters of the American Revolution, various civic clubs and politicians.
There was a bit of irony, given the times. U.S. Rep. Buddy Carter, R-Ga., gave a warm welcome, but Congress will vote on funding President Trump’s promised wall on the southern border. The keynote address was delivered by Connie Patrick, longtime director of the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center where U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents train.
In her welcome, Wood noted that some had crossed oceans and climbed mountains to get here. Taking note of the onerous process, Wood put it in context.
“We’re welcoming people who followed all the rules,” she said.
It is, after all, a court of law.
The 22 immigrants called out their names and homelands, India, Germany, Ghana, Pakistan and China, 16 in all. There was one more nationality, that of a man who had followed all the rules and then some.
When Citizenship and Immigration Services officer Mageb Wasef presented the immigrants to Wood, he did so with an accent. Born in Cairo, Egypt, Wasef came to America in 2004, “before the chaos,” he said.
He had his green card then, but that wasn’t good enough, he said.
“I wanted to earn my citizenship. I wanted to actually serve,” not just sit through a five-year wait and apply for citizenship, he said.
He joined the Army and served five years in Iraq as a foreign language interpreter.
His fellow immigrant, Alaimo, once told me he didn’t care for people taking the oath in a government office.
“It deserves the solemnity of the court,” he said.
There wasn’t as much solemnity when Wasef took his oath in 2007 that includes a promise to take up arms for the country if necessary.
“I was in the Army in Iraq,” he said. “Sen. [John] McCain came there and naturalized me. Actually, we were in Saddam’s palace on July 4.”
Wasef, his wife, Christine, and their 18-month-old son Thomas live in Jacksonville. Asked why they left Egypt, Wasef said, “We’re Coptic Christians.” He didn’t need to say more.
He was impressed McCain and Sen. Lindsay Graham traveled to Iraq, but he was equally impressed with the immigration officer who came to do what he did Thursday.
“It made me think these people are changing lives, and they don’t even know it,” he said.
Now, Wasef is helping change lives, and he knows it.