Titile Kekessa cried when she said "I do" last Tuesday. It wasn't a marriage vow that brought her tears of joy but a vow of love for the country that's been home for the past 16 years. Kekessa, a native of Ethiopia, was sworn in as a U.S. citizen at the Cannon Center downtown, along with 513 others from 91 countries.
New citizens are asked to take an oath to be willing to bear arms for their country, and Kekessa knew she was taking on a big responsibility. Such sacrifices are worth it, since her newly acquired citizenship will give her the right to vote in the upcoming election.
"America being in war is something you really don't see, unless you watch the news all the time," said Kekessa. "It's not like war in other countries, where bombs are blowing up next door."
Kekessa, a dance teacher who plans on opening a massage therapy business soon, moved to Memphis with her family in 1987. Ethiopia was taken over by communists when she was 3 years old, and by the time she was a teenager, they'd begun drafting kids as young as 12 to fight in a civil war. Scared for their childrens' lives, her parents fled to Memphis, where some friends and family were located.
"We started learning English in kindergarten, but it's just like Americans learning Spanish in school. You don't think you'll ever have to use it in the real world," said Kekessa. "The funniest things I remember hearing when we first got here was the slang, like 'What's up?' and 'cool.' I couldn't understand anybody."
She attended Germantown High School for a semester before her parents sent her and her brother to boarding school in Pennsylvania. After high school, she took some courses at a college in New Jersey but eventually transferred to the University of Memphis. She moved to Miami and came back, and now she says she's here to stay awhile.
For Kekessa, the decision to become a citizen wasn't a hard choice. Once she'd finished her mandatory five years of living in the U.S. on a green card, she applied for citizenship. That was in December. In March, she was called back for fingerprinting. In July, she was interviewed by Citizenship and Immigration Service officials, and last week was the final step. At the swearing-in, she displayed her patriotism by wearing a red, white, and blue scarf. She even had her toenails painted with tiny American flags.
After taking the oath, the new citizens filed to the stage to announce their names and home countries. About midway through, a woman from Brazil added, "I'm proud to be an American!" after saying her name. The trend soon caught on and nearly every other person proclaimed their love for God and/or country at the microphone. One man from Malaysia even made the U.S. Special Court judges laugh when he shouted, "America! The home of rock-and-roll!" But Kekessa's not so sure all 513 people knew exactly what they were getting themselves into by becoming naturalized citizens.
"That's pretty intense stuff you're saying [in the oath] before the judges," she said. "I don't know how many people actually read the stuff they give you. You have to take it seriously. You're renouncing your country and saying you'll bear arms for America."
Kekessa said the first new right she'll be exercising is voting. It's a right she's been waiting for for a while, and she hates to see natural-born Americans not taking advantage of it. She's thinking about putting together a shuttle service to help get people to the polls who might not ordinarily go.
But she doesn't hold it against Americans who take the vote for granted: "If you don't have anything to compare it to, how do you know what's better? If you drive an Escalade, it just becomes a car after a while. But if you're driving a jalopy, every time an Escalade passes by, you're saying, I want that car."