SOUTH ORANGE, NJ - South Orange celebrated 25 new U.S. citizens on Wednesday, marking the first U.S. naturalization ceremony in village history. Despite a snow cancellation this March, the South Orange Community Relations Committee (CRC) and SOMA Action helped bring the event to the South Orange Performing Arts Center (SOPAC). The candidates represented Antigua, Brazil, Myanmar, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Kenya, Liberia, Mexico, Nigeria and Korea, among other countries.

The ceremony praised South Orange as a hub of cultural exchange. Janis Zaveri, chair of the CRC, said hosting the ceremony was therefore an “organic” decision among residents. She did encounter some obstacles at first, though. Zaveri said, due to controversy at the Southern border, some of her peers feared collaboration with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) and its umbrella organization, the Department of Homeland Security.

“People were scared and reticent to even approach them,” Zaveri said. “We’re afraid of an agency we created...that should not be.”

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Zaveri began organizing the event last summer, contacting the appropriate USCIS officials. She said she highlighted for them the intricacies of South Orange history and its role as a haven for newcomers.

The Leni Lenape tribe followed a path that later became South Orange Avenue, Zaveri said. After arriving from the southern U.S., black families settled in homes surrounding the South Orange Train Station. She mentioned the arrival of Chinese merchants rejected elsewhere and, later on, the role of Seton Hall University in developing China’s 1980s economic reforms. South Orange hosts a branch of the United Nations, she said, “but we don’t tell people.”

“There are stories to tell on almost every street,” Zaveri said.

Local officials urged the U.S. citizenship candidates to consider living in South Orange. After recounting her mother’s journey from Seoul, Korea to New York — which included stops in Hawaii, Chicago and California  — South Orange Village President Sheena Collum invited her audience to move to South Orange. “If you are ever in the market to find a community to live in, know that South Orange and our family would welcome you with open arms,” Collum said.

Among the candidates sat Dumercy Bouzi, 52, who emigrated from Haiti. He decided to move to the U.S. when he lost friends and family in the 2010 earthquake. Bouzi has spent eight years pursuing American citizenship. His daughter Mahera, 20, cheered in the audience when Bouzi received his certificate.

“That was long overdue,” Mahera said. “I’m really proud.”

Mahera arrived in the U.S. this May and has received a student visa. She said she hopes to apply for U.S. citizenship soon. “I’m on the way,” she said.

Lindah Mogeni, 25, said she is excited to identify as part-American. She travelled from Kenya to study at Columbia University and sought the privileges of citizenship, particularly owning an American passport. Mogeni said she has long looked forward to Wednesday’s ceremony.

“It was a peaceful calmness because the process took awhile,” Mogeni said. “Knowing this day was here kind of felt surreal.”

She said the citizenship process has provided her with a unique perspective on immigration politics. Mogeni certainly was not expecting to receive a gift bag afterwards.

“A lot of times in the news you can have so much negative opinions...especially what’s going on right now with separations of families at borders,” Mogeni said. “[Here] in such a community-based place, where everyone’s getting naturalized and happy, I think that’s definitely a positive thing.”

The ceremony intended to honor the candidates with dignity and respect, according to Zaveri. Organizers felt that SOPAC constituted a “humane” and accessible environment for the event.

As for the future, Zaveri pointed to South Orange’s 2017 sanctuary city designation and a developing ordinance that could address relations between South Orange Police and ICE officers. The youth of South Orange are “waking up,” she said, but still require a civics curriculum and revised history courses that would address U.S. immigration more comprehensively.

“At least we’re seeing there are different sides of the immigration story in the United States,” Zaveri said. “We’ve gotta remember and hold firm the parts that are correct and good and also acknowledge the things that need to be put back the right way.”