Pledging allegiance for the first time

Tuesday, November 8, 2005
Thelreal Eunice Durrant took the Oath of Allegiance with other new naturalized U.S. citizens in a ceremony Monday at the Federal Courthouse in Cape Girardeau. (Fred Lynch)

For the first time in 35 years, a ceremony was held in Southeast Missouri to welcome immigrants as United States citizens.

On Monday morning in Cape Girardeau 18 people's lives were changed at the same time, in the same place.

Those 18 people where gathered in a courtroom in the federal courthouse, and within the space of an hour they went from immigrants to citizens of the United States.

They came from all over the globe, from places like Japan, China, South Africa, Bulgaria, Afghanistan and Jamaica. And they came from a variety of professions, from housewife to retiree to physician to translator.

One thing they all shared in common was that Monday morning was the culmination of years of work and waiting.

For Thelreal Durrant, the naturalization ceremony was the result of nine years of living in the United States. In 1994, Durrant first visited the United States to see her sister, who lived in Chaffee. Instantly she knew she wanted to stay.

"It's nice an quiet," Durrant says with a constant smile and Jamaican accent. "I just fell in love with it."

She went back to Jamaica to tie up some loose ends, then came back in 1996, where she has lived ever since.

The sun and sandy beaches of Jamaica are no longer home for Durrant. Now she lives and works at Sprigg Street Manor, a local residential care facility. On any regular Monday, the 64-year-old would be there, preparing meals for residents, cleaning and dispensing medications, skills she learned working at a hospital in Jamaica.

Her co-workers know her by her middle name, Eunice. It's much easier to pronounce. Eunice's presence brightens Ruth Marshall's life every workday.

"Eunice is a very sweet person, a very fun-loving person and a very good worker," said Marshall. The patients love her, too, Marshall said.

Durrant came to America so she could work, and she achieved that goal. Work is often hard to come by in Jamaica at Durrant's age, she said. She wanted to have financial freedom, and to determine her own future. Now she's living her version of the American dream.

"The reason I like it here is I can work," said Durrant. "I can support myself. You are free to do anything, away from getting in trouble."

She liked living here so much she studied for hours to pass the test and interviews required to become a citizen and opened up her life to a rigorous background check.

Those feelings were no doubt shared by many of the new citizens who were welcomed as Americans Monday. Not only were they welcomed as citizens, but they were welcomed in Southeast Missouri.

The ceremony hasn't been held in Southeast Missouri for 35 or more years, said U.S. Judge Stephen Limbaugh. Limbaugh presided over the ceremony with pride, smiling as he called the new citizens his "fellow Americans."

"In your new dignity you will not be known as subjects, but as citizens," Limbaugh said from his high perch on the bench. He overlooked 18 people who a moment ago held 18 hands in the air and swore allegiance to America and renounced their allegiance to any foreign state.

Behind the newly christened citizens a crowd of their friends and family beamed with pride in the gallery. For them the day meant almost as much as it did to the 18.

"I think it's very important for his life," said Dr. Shaojun Wang, who was there to support his father-in-law, Yanghe Ren, as he became a citizen at 73. "This is a milestone. He's 73, and now he'll begin his new life."

Limbaugh reminded the citizens that America was built on the strength of the immigrants who came here to realize the American dream. They started families and businesses and established new lives as Americans.

The judge was joined in welcoming the new Americans by U.S. Rep. Jo Ann Emerson. She expressed her pride in welcoming them to her district and reminded them they are part of a great legacy. It is a legacy of dreams and goals, each one different but all a part of the American dream.

"No matter what you envision as your own goal of the American dream ... the path you travel isn't traveled alone," Emerson said.

People like Durrant will travel that path with other Americans -- the people who have supported them and welcomed them to a strange land.

People like Mike Ratliff. His family owns the place where Durrant works. They've known and loved her for nine years, and helped her in her quest to gain citizenship.

"I'm proud for her and for us as a country to be Americans in a diverse culture," said Ratliff.

The new citizens and their friends were glowing afterward, looking refreshed and ready to start a new chapter. Some of them lent their beaming smiles to pictures, like the family of Ren. A new part of their life has started, but the cycle of becoming an American isn't over for them.

Within a few months Ren's wife, Shang Yuan Tang, will also become a citizen, after the couple's seven years spent in the country. She said the day can't come soon enough.

As for Durrant, she had only one thing on her mind as she left the courtroom.

"I'm just going to let it sink in," she said.

335-6611, extension 182

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