Mirwais Nasari’s first glimpses of America came from Rambo movies and “X-Files” episodes that he watched underneath the leaky roof of his family’s clay house at a refugee camp in Pakistan.
Other young Afghans he knew admired Europe, but it was always the United States for Nasari. He skipped lunch for two years to take English lessons. His father defended him to uncles who thought he should be working, not studying. And Nasari was unfazed when his big chance finally arrived, with a hitch: He’d be a Muslim teen alone in Tennessee, attending a Christian high school where he would eventually earn an A in Bible class.
“I got the visa, but I was so excited that I didn’t even believe it,” Nasari recalled.
That was 14 years ago, and Nasari’s American odyssey hasn’t stopped surprising him. After passing his citizenship test in June, he learned that he’d be among 100 people from 45 nations who will become U.S. citizens at the annual Fourth of July celebration at George Washington’s residence, Mount Vernon.
We have to give a chance to refugees. Me, the son of refugees, who grew up all my life in refugee camps, came to the United States, and at age 32, I was teaching at two universities.
Mirwais Nasari, who will become a U.S. citizen on July Fourth
The Mount Vernon ceremony was the showpiece of nearly 100 naturalization ceremonies across the country over the holiday weekend, for a total of 7,000 new Americans. The Mount Vernon invitees, chosen primarily by location and availability, were naturized just before rain washed over the first president’s mansion along the Potomac River.
“He got the fancy one!” his wife, Zheela Noori, said with mock jealousy, recalling her own nondescript oath-taking four years ago.
The symbolism – the place, the political climate – isn’t lost on Nasari. He said he stood for his oath representing refugees, immigrants, Muslims and Afghans, the thousands like him who work two jobs at a time to build new lives in the United States and the millions who wish they had the same chance. When other Americans look at him, Nasari said, he wants them to see an emblem rather than an exception.
“We have to give a chance to refugees,” he said. “Me, the son of refugees, who grew up all my life in refugee camps, came to the United States, and at age 32, I was teaching at two universities.”
Nasari said he’d worked two or three jobs since the day he got his work authorization, determined never to take a penny from the government. He put himself through nursing school and now works at a hospital while teaching part time at a college. Families who come with more mouths to feed and less fluency in English might face a steeper assimilation, he said, but he believes that admitting more refugees is a moral obligation as well as an investment that one day would enrich the country.
“Yes, you’ll probably provide some help to the parents at this time, but their children are going to be contributing back to the society in one way or another,” Nasari said. “It might not be in the short time, now, but in the long term.”
Nasari applied for a U.S. visa in 2000. He allowed himself to dream that it would only be a matter of time before he was there, in the place he knew as the backdrop to his favorite movies and TV shows.
Then, one fall day, he was playing volleyball in the camp when his uncle called him over to help translate breaking news reports on TV. Planes. New York City. Thousands dead. Plot hatched by a group sheltered in Afghanistan. As the details emerged, Nasari said, he realized that the fallout from that horrific day would extend all the way to the visa application of an 18-year-old Afghan in Peshawar.
“I thought, ‘Well, that’s the end of my coming to America,’ ” he recalled. “The embassy closed.”
When the U.S. embassy finally reopened, however, Nasari was invited for an interview. He said he was among only a handful of Afghan visa recipients that year. He initially worried about being a Muslim in the United States so soon after 9/11, but found instead that he was welcomed. He graduated from high school in Knoxville, Tennessee, where his new American friends taught him to drive and invited him to church. He answered their questions, countering perceptions that Islam and Afghanistan are irredeemably violent.
“It’s what they see in the news, and I don’t blame them,” he said. “If you only see war and you don’t see the good side, if you don’t see the people, then that’s what impression you have.”
“When they see me, their impression of Afghanistan changes,” he said.
After graduation, Nasari moved to Washington and enrolled in nursing school. In 2007, he married, Noori, a radio producer who came to the country on a full scholarship through a Hillary Clinton initiative for Afghan women.
They have an 8-year-old son, Arian, a precocious chatterbox who confounds his parents with a love for Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump. They pulled up a photo on their phone of Arian sleeping in his Trump cap. At dinner, he urged his mother to take off her head scarf, warning, “If Trump sees you wearing that, he’ll kick you out!”
“He’s a kid – he doesn’t understand what the political arena means,” Nasari said. “We ask him, ‘Why do you like Trump?’ and he says, ‘Because he’s rich and makes a lot of money.’ We’re not here to poison his brain, to tell him to start hating just because he hates us.”
Nasari said his first act as a citizen would be registering to vote; his second would be applying for a passport. He savors the thought of getting to stand in the “U.S. Citizens Only” line at the airport. He wanted to celebrate his citizenship with an all-American barbecue, though that plan is on hold until the end of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.
Nasari was fasting when he took his oath at Mount Vernon.
“When I got my visa to the U.S., it was Ramadan. I got my citizenship interview in Ramadan. And now my naturalization is in Ramadan,” he said with a laugh. “It’s God rewarding me.”