Most American stories start in other places. Which, in a way, makes a naturalization ceremony the quintessential American experience. On this day, the high school auditorium in Pittsburgh, Pa., abounds with red, white and blue—balloons, strings of lights, tinselly decorations—and chamber singers stretch for the high notes of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” But what America means can be found in the stories of 37 people from 26 countries who have just taken the oath of allegiance and are now being called to the stage to receive their naturalization certificates.
Some are very dignified, others giddy. Polish-born Marta Lewicka, a math professor at the University of Pittsburgh, turns to beam at the audience before she shakes the hand of a dignitary. Nader Abdelmassieh, a physician, poses at the end of the stage for a picture. He is a tall man with a quiet smile, but his face is shining as he waves a small flag like a child at a Fourth of July parade. America accommodates foreigners better than any other country in the world, he says later, adding, “Many people don’t realize this country is a gift and an opportunity.”
That lesson is front and center for John Eckstein ’64 and his wife Diane. For the past four months, they’ve been traveling cross-country attending naturalization ceremonies—this one is their eighth—to promote Citizenship Counts, a nonpartisan nonprofit founded in 2008 by Holocaust survivor and 2010 Presidential Medal of Honor recipient Gerda Weissmann Klein.
Citizenship Counts has two missions—teaching a middle- and high-school curriculum on the rights and responsibilities of being a good American citizen and emphasizing our history as a nation of immigrants. “What better way to combine those two missions but to host a naturalization ceremony in the schools,” Eckstein says. Two of the speakers today fled Somalia with their families and spent eight years in a Kenyan refugee camp. One is a student at this high school, the other a recent graduate and newly minted citizen. “Students see that people from all over the world want to come to this country,” he says. “It’s a very meaningful ceremony.”
The Ecksteins’ journey “from sea to shining sea” began at the end of January in San Diego and will end in New York City in June. By that time, Eckstein, a semi-retired physician from Phoenix, Ariz., will have racked up 3,500 miles by bike and on foot while Diane, a Citizenship Counts board member, follows in a small RV with their dog Kipp. “We wanted Gerda to see this journey,” says Eckstein, “which we view as a journey of freedom and hope.”
The stop in Pittsburgh is a larger celebration for the Ecksteins as well. John’s grandfather Herman came to Pittsburgh in 1923 from Hungary, making a living selling furnaces, and able, after three years, to send for his wife and seven children. For today’s ceremony, John’s brother Paul ’62, a Pomona trustee and lawyer from Phoenix, and his wife Flo, have joined them, along with first cousins from Pittsburgh, New York and Florida. Their generation, says Paul, includes two doctors, one lawyer and two librarians.
Their parents—Herman Eckstein’s children—all went to high school in this very building. In fact, the family home is just up the street and around the corner. A few years ago, in town for a family reunion, John, Paul and the cousins all trooped over to the old homestead. It was smaller than they remembered. They knocked on the door and asked if they could come in. “Certainly,” said the Vietnamese family who lives there now, opening the door wide and welcoming them in.