Remarks at World Refugee Day Naturalization Ceremony
Deputy Secretary of State
Good afternoon. To Sara Bloomfield and the extraordinary staff and volunteers of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, to my colleagues at the Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, thank you.
And to our newest Americans, this is, without exaggeration, one of the finest privileges of my life to welcome you as fellow citizens and also to share with you in the rights and obligations, the bounty and the blessings of our democracy that we now share.
Today, on World Refugee Day, we have a special responsibility—to celebrate your citizenship and reflect on the peril and loss you endured to reach it. From sixteen corners of the earth, you have followed the footsteps of generations before you who have sought sanctuary in America often with little else but great faith in the capacity of courage to prevail over fear.
I have some understanding of what this day means to you and your families.
Like many Americans, I owe the grace and opportunities of my own life to the sacrifices of my parents and grandparents, whose own history is safeguarded in these very walls: that of my grandfather, Maurice Blinken, who fled pogroms in eastern Europe; of my stepmother, Vera Blinken, who fled Communism in Hungary; and of my late stepfather, Samuel Pisar, who—having survived four years in Majdanek, Auschwitz, Dachau—was just 16 years old when the war ended. The only survivor of his family. The only survivor of a school of 900 children in Bialystok, Poland.
As the guns of liberation moved towards Auschwitz during the final months of the war, he was sent out of the camp on a death march. The Americans were advancing from the west, the Russians from the east. He made a run for it and found cover, despite the German fire.
A day later, still hiding in the Bavarian forest, he heard a sound—a deep rumbling sound.
He looked out from the woods—and instead of seeing the dreaded swastika, he saw something else, a five-pointed white star.
He ran for that star—he ran for that tank. The hatch opened. He got down on his knees and spoke the only three words in English that he knew and that his mother had taught him. “God Bless America.”
The GI in that tank, an African-American sergeant, lifted him from the ground into the tank, into the United States, and into freedom.
Until his death eleven months ago, Sam honored that moment—that gift—by dedicating his life to the advocacy of human rights and the search for co-existence among adversaries.
And just as he ran towards that star so have you.
In June 1961, in recognition of his service to his new nation and its young President Kennedy, he was made a citizen of the United States by an act of Congress. And he used to say that, “Most Americans are such by accident of birth. I am American by choice.”
I know that for probably most of you, leaving your homes was not a choice.
But your story, like my stepfather’s and so many others, is now a part of our American story—part of a larger journey first imagined in the precious few words We the People.
And by design, it is a story that is left unfinished.
Day by day, we are meant to continue the work of those who came before us and build a nation that better reflects the values, honors the diversity, and lives up to the aspirations of every single one of its citizens.
Sometimes we fall short.
Today, we are witnessing deeply unsettling undercurrents in our own communities and those around the world—echoes of the bigotry, intolerance, and persecution from which you and your families fled in the first place.
But this tide, as strong as it sometimes seems, as loud as it sounds, cannot long resist a force far more powerful than it—that of active citizens in a free and fair society.
As a nation, our history has been shaped by those whose pride of heritage and love of country led them to fully exercise the rights of democracy’s highest office—to disagree, to debate, to vote, to protest, to criticize, to contribute.
This remains our nation’s highest form of patriotism—and the greatest source of our renewal and strength.
Just this morning, I met with a group of refugee community leaders from across the country who have come to Washington to raise their voices on behalf of their fellow citizens.
I shared with them an experience I had recently in Oakland, California, where I met two young brothers from Afghanistan, who had fled from the Taliban and come to America by way of Russia.
These young men, Kamal and Jalal, were Muslim. I met them sitting in the offices of the Catholic Charities of the East Bay. And they had been resettled by Jewish Family and Community Services.
That is what’s best in us—a reflection of the genuine warmth and generosity that ultimately defines our country. The millions of refugees who have sought shelter on our shores have enriched and enlivened the diverse mosaic of our nation. And as President Obama has made clear, we will continue to meet our obligations to them no matter what.
So on behalf of President Obama and Secretary Kerry, let me express our great pride in all of you on this day, as we stand together to fulfill the sacred honor and duty that is now our shared American citizenship.
Thank you so very, very much.