City of Knoxville, TN

09/20/2019 | News release | Distributed by Public on 09/21/2019 00:52

Journey to America: Stories of Hope

Enjoy these stories of some of Knoxville's newest American citizens from the Sept. 17, 2019, Naturalization Ceremony at Historic Blount Mansion in downtown Knoxville.

Isam Almatra and his wife Suad Al Wazzan

Six years after leaving their native Iraq as refugees, Isam Almatra and his wife Suad Al Wazzan are jubilant.

'I wanted to just lift up and fly this morning,' said Almatra.

Minutes earlier, the couple had become American citizens along with 38 other men and women in a ceremony at Knoxville's historic Blount Mansion.

It was also Constitution Day, and Almatra had just learned a bit of the significance of Blount Mansion, built in 1792, and home to William Blount.

Almatra had found out William Blount was a signer of the U.S. Constitution and a territorial governor.

'I didn't know about this old building at first. It's like a museum, part of history. And it's my pleasure to be here,' said Almatra.

Smiling and holding small American flags, the couple sat close together on a couch in Blount Mansion, surrounded by two of their sons who had become American citizens in Knoxville in February.

Almatra lifted his hand high while holding his flag.

'I raise my hat to all who helped us,' he said.

Almatra said they came to the United States to escape the great problems in Iraq - 'the fighting and the killing.'

'It has been a long, long wait to this moment,' says Alessandra Ceccarelli, a Program Leader at the Office of Immigrant Services with Catholic Charities of East Tennessee.

Ceccarelli accompanied the family to the ceremony and noted their long journey to citizenship.

'The people who are becoming citizens do so much work to complete this process, and you sometimes get a little nervous along the way,' she said. 'They are so glad for this moment when they are citizens.'

'I pray to God and thank him for peace and safety,' Almatra said. 'We escaped from the problems of Iraq. I have found peace in the United States. This is a good country.'

The couple's first thoughts after officially becoming citizens?

'We wanted to register to vote,' Almatra said. 'And we did that right here at Blount Mansion.'

'We will live in Knoxville - a beautiful city full of good people.'

Bronwyn Henley (center) with Kurt Brandt and his wife Dawn Huff

Bronwyn Henley's journey to the United States from South Africa nearly didn't happen 21 years ago, says Dawn Huff, who says Bronwyn is 'like a daughter' to her and her husband Kurt Brandt.

The 19-year-old had been approved to travel to Knoxville as part of the au pair international program, but a car accident delayed the process and further meant she had to reapply through the au pair organization in Knoxville.

An au pair is an assistant from a foreign country working for, and living as part of, a host family. Au pairs experience the culture of another country, and the host families learn about the culture of the au pair.

'I've been here now for so many years, and I wanted to stay with my family,' said Henley, hugging Huff and Brandt.

Huff and Brandt are both pediatricians in Knoxville. Huff's father, Paul B. Huff, was a World War II Medal of Honor recipient.

Henley met her husband Kenneth Henley at a Bible study in Knoxville. They married and today have two boys, Stephen and Luke.

Her naturalization is a family celebration with the mothers of both Huff and Brandt also attending.

'My home in this country is permanent now, and that is the biggest difference,' says Henley, who works for Delta Airlines. 'I'm an American, and I get to vote for the first time. I can't wait!'

'We thought Bronwyn came to us because God wanted her in our lives and in the lives of our four children, but she came here because of Kenneth, too, and to find a life here,' said Huff. 'It's a wonderful day for this family.'

Paul James in his office at the Knoxville History Project

Knoxvillians have been claiming Paul James as one of their own for years.

'Many people have thought I was already an American citizen,' said James, who began working in leadership positions in Knoxville soon after moving here in 1999.

James' journey to the United States began in 1996 by way of his home in Derby, England, then to New York City and finally to Knoxville with his first wife.

James began working at Ijams Nature Center in 2000 and was its Executive Director from 2004-2016. He is now the Development Director of the Knoxville History Project.

'Our mission is to research and promote the history and culture of Knoxville. We're unique in this, I believe,' said James.

One of his latest writing projects is about the history of all the mayors of Knoxville.

An oversized historic map of Knoxville from the 1800s takes up much of the floor space in James' downtown office in the historic Carpenters Union Building. It's a regular reference point for his work.

'This history is part of the renaissance of Knoxville and another reason I really enjoy this place.'

In June, he became an American citizen and says he chose to be a citizen because the United States and Knoxville are home.

The biggest difference in his life several months later? The right to vote.

'I'll look forward to voting in the next general election,' says James, who lives in Knox County and has always worked in the city.

James embraces the generosity of spirit he has always seen in Knoxville. 'Our city has a history of welcoming people, and it's part of why I enjoy it so much.'

James is aware he came to the United States from another wonderful country, and that many other people come to this country under fearful circumstances.

'I do share that sense of journey with all those seeking to make the United States their home. We each come from another country with different languages, and we all learn those 100 statements that are part of the citizenship process,' said James.

'Becoming a citizen is a profound civics lesson.'

He began to think about becoming a citizen more than a year ago as he also considered 'the fact that you have to renew your green card every 10 years.'

'This was a good time to become a citizen, and I had also recently remarried, so it was also the right time for me,' he said.

James' family has visited Knoxville many times, and he returns to England as often as he can.

'There will always be Britain in me. It's always a part of me,' he says. 'But Knoxville has been home for a long time, and now I'm an American.'