Amid laughter and tears, 254 immigrants become U.S. citizens

June 15, 1994|By Mark Guidera | Mark Guidera,Sun Staff Writer

Bella and Yakov Gelfand, who fled their Russian homeland five years ago, were torn between laughing and crying with joy last night as they each held a hand-size American flag and sang with hundreds of others the national anthem of their new country -- the United States of America.

"It is a difficult feeling to describe. It is like we have been reborn. Not everyone is lucky to live two lives," said Mrs. Gelfand, 64, who emigrated with her husband to the Baltimore area five years ago.

The Gelfands were two of 254 immigrants, ranging in ages from 18 to 85, from around the globe who took the oath as U.S. citizens last night in a Flag Day ceremony at Owings Mills High School. The event was one the larger naturalization ceremonies held in the Baltimore area this year.

It was also distinguished as one of the most ethnically diverse this year, said Immigration and Naturalization Service officials.

The new Americans hailed from near and far: Lebanon, India, Ethiopia, Haiti, France, Mozambique, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Pakistan and Iran to name but a few of the 50 countries where the newest citizens were born.

But the ethnic group that dominated last night's event was made up of Russian Jews including the Gelfands. About half of those who took the oath as U.S. citizens last night were Jews who fled the former Soviet Union as religious refugees after then-Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev loosened emigration laws in the late 1980s, said Suzanne Offit, executive director of the Baltimore chapter of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, which organized last night's ceremony with the INS.

The nonprofit society, funded by The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore, helped all the Jewish refugees participating in last night's ceremony resettle in the area and assisted them with attaining citizenship requirements, such as learning English.

The Russian Jews sworn in last night are part of a wave of about 4,700 such immigrants who have settled in the Baltimore area during the past five years, according to HIAS statistics.

"For many of the Soviet Jews, this is an experience they have long dreamed about," said Ms. Offit. "They are now free of the fear of being persecuted.

"In Russia, they had a well-founded fear of persecution; there is a long history of anti-Semitism there. Here they lavish in the freedoms we have -- voting, calling up a congressman to complain, attending services at a synagogue without fear of the government. They have no interest whatsoever in ever going back."

Many of the new Americans said they saw last night's event as a window to a new life of freedoms and opportunities -- such as helping run the government, which they were encouraged to do several times when speakers urged them to register to vote with volunteers from the League of Women Voters.

The right to vote was apparently on the minds of many of the new citizens as they flocked to the voter registration tables.

But they also looked forward to the bounty of other opportunities and freedoms they had just been handed.

For Leonid and Irina Briskin, two violinists who left Russia for the United States five years ago, a freedom much on their minds was that of creative expression.

"Here we can play any music we want," said Mr. Briskin, a violinist with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.

"We can say anything we think and not have to worry about government officials," Mrs. Briskin said.

For Penny and Mendhat Hannallah, former Britons, becoming Americans had a lot to do with their three young children's futures.

"It will be better here for them," said Mrs. Hannallah, whose entire family wore white T-shirts adorned with American flag designs.

And then, of course, there was the freedom to pursue unfettered one's hopes and ideas.

"In Russia, all of my ideas were stopped or stolen by political officials," said Mr. Gelfand, 68, a teacher at Baltimore Hebrew University. "Here, my ideas are my own. I can pursue them as I wish, and I'm respected for that."

Said Mrs. Gelfand, "In America, you get a new feeling about yourself that you never had before. You have more self-esteem. You can live the way you want and be proud."

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