Little Amal at the Citizenship Ceremony - SHIM

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Little Amal at the Citizenship Ceremony

Lila's citizenship ceremony with Little Amal, Michelle, and Casey

Former SHIM Service Coordination Director now OIRA Policy Coordinator for Pittsburgh’s Mayor Michelle King, Lila, and Casey at the citizenship ceremony

Casey Rich, SHIM South Hills Family Center Site Director

On September 21st, I had the opportunity to participate in a spectacular Welcoming event that I know I will remember for many years to come. I set out for the City-County building that day excited to observe a naturalization ceremony, something I have not had the chance to do in quite a few years. A SHIM client that I have worked with through some pretty difficult times, Lila, was granted her United States Citizenship after seven years of perseverance and hard work. Candidates for citizenship go through months of applications, interviews, and an exam in English and United States History. They also must be found to be “of good moral character” – i.e. that they have not committed any serious crimes during their time in the United States. Lila, a 60-year-old single woman who arrived alone as a refugee from Bhutan, had challenges with the testing and applications due to her age and low level of English. So, it was very exciting to get to see her complete the naturalization process and officially become an American citizen. That alone would have been reason to attend the ceremony on a gorgeous day in September in downtown Pittsburgh. But the Mayor’s office had a surprise for the candidates that day. Little Amal was going to join and be part of the naturalization ceremony.

Little Amal is a traveling experiential art piece – a 12 foot tall puppet depicting a Syrian refugee girl on a journey to find her new home. In each city she travels to, she visits theaters and outdoor public events to spread awareness about the stories of displaced people across the globe. Pittsburgh was one of her first stops in the US; by the end of her trip, she will have travelled over 6,000 miles across the country. Before coming to the US, she walked all over Europe in places like Turkey, France, the UK, Greece, and Poland. In conjunction with her appearances, the Walk with Amal organization coordinates with local governments and nonprofits to hold film screenings, group discussions, school events, and large-scale community projects focused on welcoming.

Here in Pittsburgh, Amal visited the Carrie Blast Furnaces, the August Wilson Center, and Whitney Park in Wilkinsburg, as well as the City-County building for this very unique naturalization ceremony I attended.

When I arrived at the intersection of Grant Street and Fourth Avenue, I saw crowds of school kids in uniforms – not the typical setting for this ceremony, which usually takes place inside the courthouse or at the USCIS (United States Citizenship and Immigration Services) Field Office in the Southside. This ceremony was set up outside with rows of folding chairs under the portico. And while these are usually pretty low-key events, with speeches and quiet applause, this one had a buzz of excitement around it. The kids held little American flags and handmade signs and were obviously excited to be out of the classroom for the morning. But the real excitement came when passers-by on the street started to hold up their cell phones like they were taking videos, and the man sitting next to me said “I can’t see. Something big must be coming down the street. Look at all those people looking up with their phones.” Then Amal walked into view and everyone jumped up.

Little Amal requires four puppeteers to make her function: one on each hand, one supporting her back, and one inside walking on stilts, controlling her more subtle movements like blinking and breathing. Her torso is built like a cage so that the inside puppeteer can see in front of her and guide her movements in coordination with the people around her. It was a fascinating thing to watch the four people work together, using earpieces with microphones so they could talk to each other and give directions. All this effort combined to make Amal move with incredibly realistic, fluid motion.Little Amal

She had a little bit of a hard time getting up the steps of the City-County building (they had to build a special ramp for her!) but once she was under the portico, she walked with ease. Her shoulders went up and down with each breath in a natural rhythm. Her eyes blinked – not the way a machine would blink on a timer, but randomly, the way a human would. She walked up the center aisle, greeting people with a wave, and then stood back to hear a school choir sing My Country ‘Tis of Thee. As the ceremony followed its usual agenda with speeches from a few public figures and an administered oath of allegiance, Amal took a spot at the front, calmly observing and handing a flower to each candidate as they came up to get their certificates. At the end, some of the school students presented Amal with a giant scarf they had decorated with all of their handprints on it in colorful paint.

Little Amal at ceremony with crowdSteven Rice, Director of the Pittsburgh USCI Field Office, spoke during the main part of the ceremony and shared a truly welcoming message. He explained that becoming a US citizen does not have to mean giving up allegiance to your home country, leaving your culture, traditions, and language behind. He encouraged the candidates not to give up their culture but instead to merge it with their new American identity so that they might value the strengths they have on both sides. It was inspiring to hear this, imagining what it must feel like to be one of the candidates sitting there that day, and what this change must mean for their sense of who they are. In a world of so much polarization, he encouraged all of us observers to value the power in their merged identities.

After the ceremony, I got to see this firsthand when I got the chance to congratulate my client, Lila, on her accomplishment and take photos with her. She wore a suit for the occasion — a more Western outfit than I’ve ever seen her in — but wore a tika on her forehead, the red powder mark she puts on every day designating her Hindu faith. She got up before the ceremony was over to take a selfie with Little Amal. And she presented us and Mr. Rice with doshallas, special printed Bhutanese scarves given in times of celebration. She even put a tika on my forehead – this one not as a mark of faith, but a blessing, and a thank you. It said so much more than her limited English could express about the help she’s gotten from SHIM over the years and her pride in herself at how far she’s come.

The name Amal is the Arabic word for hope. I’m not sure how much Lila understood why this giant blinking puppet was walking around downtown. But she certainly felt what everyone was feeling that day in Little Amal’s presence – a sense of hope that Pittsburgh can and will continue to welcome people from all corners of the world.

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