June 16, 2005
By Spc. Nicki Fellenzer
MOUNT VERNON, Va. -- “I am so happy! I am so proud!” whispered Tiffany Hafeez excitedly as she watched her husband raise his hand and repeat the Oath of Citizenship. In the bright sunshine and sizzling heat, Sgt. Ata Ul Hafeez of B Company, 229th Engineer Battalion, from Fredericksburg became a citizen of the United States on Flag Day, June 14 at Virginia’s Mount Vernon.
Under the proud gaze of families and friends, 100 new American citizens, representing 36 different nations from around the world, recited the Pledge of Allegiance at the historic estate of America’s first president, George Washington. After a musical tribute by the National Men’s Chorus and a recorded greeting by President George W. Bush welcoming them into the American family, the newly sworn-in citizens received their Certificates of Naturalization.
For Hafeez, the Naturalization Ceremony was merely a formality. As a Non-Commissioned Officer in the Virginia Army National Guard, Hafeez already felt himself a citizen, serving his nation in uniform. The kinship with his new nation truly took hold when Hafeez was in Basic Combat Training at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo.
Upon seeing photographs of service members lost in the USS Cole bombing, and hearing the National Anthem played, “It hit me,” Hafeez said. “Here’s this country where people actually care if you lost one, and they stop for a minute.”
“The country that I had just come from had no humanity,” he continued. “I had seen dead bodies on the road with bullets in their chest and it was OK. No one would even come by to pick up the bodies,” he recalled. But all of a sudden Hafeez was impacted emotionally by the deaths of two service members he didn’t even know. That’s when he felt like he was in a brotherhood. “Being in uniform made me feel like I’m a part of something. No one can kick me out of this. I stand for something.”
Hafeez arrived in America on July 26, 1996 at the age of 15. He spoke no English upon his arrival, but several years later, he found himself in uniform thanks to advice he received from his father, “The only way you can ever show your allegiance to a country is by joining the Armed Forces.”
Hafeez’s father was a government official in Pakistan, who was about to be ejected from his job because of his faith. Hafeez and his family were declared non-Muslims by Pakistani law for practicing their version of Islam, and any declaration stating otherwise was punishable by 10 lashes and life imprisonment. Fearing retribution, the family fled to the United States.
Hafeez currently lives in Stafford, Va. with his wife and three-year-old daughter.