Words we don’t use in “polite society” these days. But here it is. I am an immigrant. And I am patriotic. Why does it feel daring to say that? It shouldn’t.
I love traveling (or used to, but that’s another story). I always return home a little more aware of what sets our American society apart; surprised at what an icon the US is throughout the world; and wishing we all would cherish our freedoms and recognize our responsibilities just a bit more.
Many years ago, I had the rare opportunity to speak at a naturalization ceremony. There were 157 applicants from 48 countries, all wanting to start new lives here.
This was my address:
I received my citizenship when I was 9-years-old. Even at that age I knew how significant a day it was. I still remember what I wore and how my hand shook as I signed my pictures, trying to get just one right so it could be attached to my certificate.
You are especially fortunate in that today is the 200th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birth. Lincoln understood the ideals on which this country was founded with such clarity that he expressed them perfectly in his 2-minute address dedicating the cemetery at Gettysburg. It’s fitting to reflect on his words today.
His address opens with words familiar to us all:
“Fourscore and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”
(Obviously he meant to include women as well.)
And then he closed with:
“…that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that the government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from this earth.”
I had to memorize the Gettysburg Address when I was a fourth-grader. The words have stayed with me. In fact sometimes when I lie awake at night I will recite it, seeing how much I still remember. It wasn’t until I was preparing to address you today that I understood why—that these words have a profound significance to me personally. So let me tell you a little about myself.
My grandfather was a poor tailor in Cairo. Sounds like the beginning of a story, doesn’t it? Well it is. My father was the first person in his family to be educated. He left Egypt and came to the United States when he could no longer accept the oppression in Egypt. He left after I was conceived but before I was born. When we finally were able to join him three years later, it was the first time I had met my father. I know that many of you are dealing with separation from your loved ones and so I know how you feel.
My father raised me as he did my brothers; with an uncompromising emphasis on education and with a clear understanding of our responsibility to contribute to society. And so I applied myself to my studies, eventually graduating with a degree in nuclear engineering—one of the first women to do so.
As a young professional, as I started to travel overseas, I would come home with one romantic idea or another of living in Paris or moving to Vienna. My father always responded to my whims with a reminder that this country was like no other on earth. That only here was there true freedom.
And as life went on and I started to expand my scope, I travelled to countries where oppression is a reality. I saw countries where the government is not for the people, where there is no presumption that all men or women are created equal, where people cannot imagine that things can be different—that they cannot even dream of an alternative.
And I began to understand my father’s words. That it is because of what this country is about that I can tell a story like this:
My grandfather was a poor tailor in Cairo. My father immigrated to the United States. He raised two sons. One became a top communications researcher, the other a CIO at a prominent biotech firm. He raised a daughter too, who became an engineer, and then an entrepreneur. And today I, a woman of Egyptian birth, has the great good fortune to be the CEO of one of the fastest growing software companies in the US.
And so it is with this experience, and with my father’s and Abraham Lincoln’s words as a backdrop, I can tell you today that as new citizens, this country offers you the full benefits of true freedom—the freedom to dream and the freedom to realize your dreams, unfettered by fears or constraints. It asks only that you respect its laws and your fellow Americans.
I ask you to recognize what a gift it is to live here in freedom with only the horizon as your boundary.
I was shaking with emotion when I finished. I had noticed as I recited the Gettysburg address that some of the new citizens were mouthing the words along with me.
I stood in the receiving line and greeted each new citizen as they were given their naturalization certificates. Some stared at their certificates as if they were made of gold, held them as if they were the most precious gift they had ever received. Most stopped to greet me, to thank me for my remarks, to tell me that my life story inspired them. One mother asked to have a picture taken with me and with her son, so that she could remind him how important it is to study. A man asked me when I was going to write my book, a woman if I would mentor her in her new company, and one young man said “I’ll see you at the top”. All of them touched me deeply.
I have been given gifts well beyond reason. And one of them is the gift of being an American citizen. An immigrant and a patriot.