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Of Citizens and Ceremonies



It’s July — the month our blood runs red, white and blue. Along with the pyrotechnics on Independence Day, there are marching bands, Dalmatians on fire engines, veterans saluting and flags flying all over the place. It’s a grand time to be an American. 

Outside of Native Americans, we all came from somewhere else, of course, and like our ancestors most of us were eager to become citizens. 

Okay, I did have one friend who dragged her feet a bit — like forty years. She just couldn’t detach herself from the Old Country. Then a gentleman of means proposed marriage only if she became an American. It took her all of two weeks to get that fixed. 

But Elena Moffly, our Russian-born daughter-in-love, pursued citizenship with determination, except she had to wait and wait. I began to wonder if they thought her father was KGB. That warm bear of a man who calls Jack and me from Moscow on our birthdays? Never!

When swearing-in day finally arrived in 2006, all us Mofflys sat in a Bridgeport courtroom waving our little flags. The judge was terrific. She sent home two candidates in blue jeans, telling them to come back another time when they were properly attired. She told thirteen of the remaining thirty-five that she had agreed to their name changes. “First I’ll tell you about myself,” she began, launching into her Irish-Italian background. “Now I’ll tell you about you,” she went on, pointing out that the group included four Russians, six Guatemalans, one Korean, etc. “Feel free to bring your family up to the bench for a photograph with me,” she added. “Afterward the League of Women Voters will take your papers across the street to make sure you can vote in the election on Tuesday.” Just four days away. Fast work — and a lasting memory. PS: Our five Moffly grandchildren, dual citizens like their mother, can speak Russian. Read and write it, too. 

In 1949, Jara Burnett’s family fled Czecho-slovakia and a communist regime bent on eliminating the middle class. When the secret police came for her father,  a known anticommunist, Jara’s little sister told them he was on a business  trip. Arriving home for lunch, he missed them by minutes and managed to escape to Southern France, where the family joined him later before emigrating to Canada. 

Then Jara married an American and in 1964 renounced her Czech and Canadian citizenships to become a U.S. citizen. (Multi-citizenship wasn’t an option here until the eighties.) “I really did it because I wanted to vote against Goldwater!” she quips.

Getting out the vote became a passion. By 1980 she was president of the Greenwich League of Women Voters (creating the first Voters Guide), recently served as president of the Connecticut League and is going back on its board to organize debates. 

“Having had three citizenships, I wanted to know how governments work,” says Jara. “It seemed a natural.” 

From Denmark came Birgit Svendsen on a student visa and met her future-husband, Jack Minor, on a blind date in New York. A long-distance courtship followed, highlighted by the day she flew into JFK from Copenhagen to find that Jack had arranged for a helicopter to deliver her to the top of the Pan Am building. 

She didn’t become a U.S. citizen until 1995 when their kids were teens. “I would have done it earlier,” she says, “but it was during that period when terrorists were hijacking planes and you were in big trouble if you had a U.S. passport.” So she and a Dutch friend had waited. In her honor Diane and Walt Alder threw an all-American party complete with apple pie. Birgit doesn’t believe in dual citizenship and uses only her American passport when she travels.  

“There is no other country like it,” says Ava Karasklewicz who became an American fourteen years ago. She gets goose bumps every time she returns from a visit to Poland and the passport officer says “Welcome home!” but is proud that her sons haven’t changed their Polish names. After all, says Ava, “America is a melting pot of everybody.” 

John Blankley, his Belgian wife, Vera, and their three children arrived from the U.K. in 1983, John as CFO of British Petroleum North America. But when he was due back in London, they wanted to stay. So John took an executive position with Stolt-Nielsen and after years of trying, became a U.S. citizen in 1997. 

“It’s not so easy for the higher-paid help,” he observes. “You have to prove to the Labor Department that you’re not taking a job away from an American.” But the ball started rolling thanks to Vera, a United Nations interpreter who speaks five languages. Few Americans could qualify for her job. “And quite honestly,” he admits, “we had to throw a lot of dollars at a big-deal immigration attorney, actually the one who got John Lennon into the country.” 

A historian, John thinks that our constitutional foundation and what our founders did a scant 200 years ago are unparalleled in history. “There are many people from overseas who just want to hold onto their green cards and don’t go the whole step,” says this gentleman, who has served on the Greenwich RTM and twice run for First Selectman. “I wanted to become an American and participate fully in the democratic process. It’s a duty as much as anything else.” 

These are the people who make our United States — for all its squabbling — the greatest nation on earth.

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