Family of four proud to become Americans
The song has played hundreds of times before, but this time, for the first time, it moves Jan Hansen to tears.
She hadn’t expected to get emotional. Yes, she is about to become a U.S. citizen, a momentous day for most. But the mood so far has been lighthearted as she and her family reminisce about their journey to America from South Africa.
Then a singer leads the 50 immigrants in “The Star-Spangled Banner.” It strikes a chord.
Her son turns to see tears in Jan’s eyes. She can’t help it, seeing her husband and children next to her, hands on hearts, all together.
U.S. Magistrate Judge David Bernthal, who is about to administer the oath of citizenship, takes note.
“Kind of reminds you of the Olympics,” he says lightly as the crowd laughs, and then, “It’s your Team USA now.”
The Hansens — Alan, Jan, Amy and Ricky — aren’t part of the tired, poor, huddled masses fleeing poverty or persecution we so often envision as immigrants.
Their names sound more like the Brady Bunch. They’ve known freedom. They were invited to America for a university job, and have a comfortable life.
But like most immigrants, they have a story — one that involves political upheaval, crime, even a chance encounter with one of the world’s great leaders.
Their day begins like most others, with a stop at the coffee shop. It’s been a routine for Alan and Jan Hansen since they moved to Champaign-Urbana 14 years ago, when he landed a job as a professor at the University of Illinois Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering.
But something’s different on this frosty last day of February. Their kids are along. Alan polishes his shoes. Jan has new clothes. The men are in suits.
Jan makes sure they have their permanent resident cards and gathers up the citizenship applications. She had a moment of panic the night before when she couldn’t find Ricky’s; luckily, it had just fallen off the fridge.
“I can’t be a citizen!” Ricky jokes. There’s lots of that in this close-knit family.
Before they leave their apartment, Jan updates her Facebook page: “About to hit up naturalization ceremony. No longer going to be an illegal alien. U.S. citizenship here we come!”
They arrive at the coffee shop with no coats, save for Amy, a remnant of the mild South African winters. You can always spot the South Africans, Alan says, because they’re not dressed properly.
Inside, another regular, John Phipps, wanders over to offer his congratulations.
Over coffee, they share memories.
Alan, 61, and Jan, 53, were both born in Zimbabwe to families of British descent, Alan on a 5,000-acre farm where his kids would later play and explore and jump in piles of chaff left over from the corn harvest.
But Zimbabwe in the late 1970s was a turbulent place, as white-ruled Rhodesia gave way after years of fighting to a new country led by a former rebel, Robert Mugabi. Jan’s family left for South Africa in 1981.
Alan had gone to South Africa for college, then returned to Zimbabwe for compulsory military service in 1978-79. He went back to South Africa to work as a research engineer and later a professor at University of KwaZulu-Natal in Pietermaritzburg, a city of roughly 500,000 in eastern South Africa. The couple met there and had two children, Amy in 1989 and Ricky in 1991.
The kids were born during a period of great change in South Africa, as the country dismantled its harsh system of racial segregation known as apartheid. Alan’s university was a leading voice for change, and the couple obtained South African citizenship so they could vote against apartheid in a historic referendum in March 1992. Then they proudly cast their votes for Nelson Mandela as the first president elected by South Africans of all races. He was, Alan says, “just such a remarkable person.”
“It was the first time I voted,” Jan says. “There was such a positive kind of feeling among people.”
This brings up one of their favorite stories.
When the kids were 5 and 7, Jan took them to the tiny Pietermaritzburg airport to drop off Alan. They lingered to watch parachutists and began hearing murmurs about Mandela coming to the airport.
Jan discounted it. Then a large camouflage helicopter landed.
“Out comes Nelson Mandela,” she says, followed by soldiers with machine guns.
The crowd quickly formed a line for him to pass. Amy shyly stood behind her mom. Jan was so excited she somehow didn’t get to shake Mandela’s hand.
But the president bent down and shook Ricky’s hand.
“He asked if I’d like to go in the helicopter. Being a young, shy kid, I said no,” he says. “To this day I wonder what he would have done if I’d said yes.”
The moment is fixed in his memory — partly because of those machine guns. “I think that’s the reason I said no.” He knows it will be hard to top.
“I’m beyond grateful that I got to meet him,” Ricky says.
Their memories of South Africa are mostly happy ones. Amy remembers being surrounded by family and friends, big birthday parties thrown by her mom, schools with “houses” like those in Harry Potter, where all students, not just the best athletes, played on a team.
Jan and Alan miss British tea, when they’d pop over to a friend’s for cakes — “terribly common” in South Africa but a puzzlement to their American friends when they’d show up at 4 p.m.
Ricky, who’s been back to South Africa several times, loves the emphasis on the outdoors, weekend hiking trips in the mountains or swimming year-round in the warm coastal waters 50 miles away at Durban.
The kids loved the annual trips to the Hansen farm 900 miles away in Zimbabwe. They’d sometimes see giraffes and other wildlife along the way.
“Such a lovely way to grow up,” Jan says.
The government took over the farm in the early 2000s, part of a land-redistribution program. Alan’s parents still live in Zimbabwe, and he has two brothers in South Africa.
He visits South Africa every summer as part of a program that pairs UI students with those from the University of KwaZulu-Natal on various projects.
Ricky, a recent UI graduate, has been back several times, including a study-abroad semester as a sophomore.
One of his stops? His favorite fast-food restaurant, Steers. It serves beef.
“It was just as good as I remembered,” he says.
So why did they leave?
Opportunity, mostly, and concern for their children’s future.
Alan had taken three sabbaticals at the UI — his university had strong faculty connections with the Urbana campus. During his last visit a professor who shared his expertise in machinery and biofuels retired, and Alan was offered the position.
The family moved to Champaign-Urbana in 1999.
The couple also had grown uneasy about rising crime and unrest in South Africa.
Virtually everyone is affected, Jan says. Her sister-in-law was held at gunpoint in her driveway. Muggers tried to rob Ricky as he walked home from classes one evening. He learned to hide his computer in his mattress, and his phone was stolen. Carjackings are so common that drivers are told to run red lights if they’re approached at an intersection. Shoppers tip “car guards” to watch their vehicles at the grocery store.
“Politically it’s in such upheaval,” Jan adds. “It was a difficult decision ... but the future was uncertain.”
Ricky was 8 and Amy was 10 when they moved — a good time, Alan says, before the kids became teenagers. They’d been here before, so it wasn’t totally new.
“I remember being told we were going to move at a restaurant. I suppose as a kid I didn’t feel necessarily sad nor overly excited. It was, ‘That’s crazy; we’re going to America,’” Ricky says.
“Everyone’s pretty receptive to people from other countries here. You feel special.”
Taking the next step toward citizenship together just seemed to be “the right thing to do,” Alan says.
Their permanent resident cards would have had to be renewed this year anyway.
Citizenship carries benefits, including easier travel with a U.S. passport. Jan jokes that she’s “always wanted to be on ‘Survivor’ but you can’t if you’re not a citizen.”
And the process has been fun, she says, traveling to Chicago together for the citizenship test (she crammed the night before) and Indianapolis for fingerprinting.
But as the day goes on they get more reflective.
“I want to be able to become a citizen like my children,” Amy says of Aedan, 3, and Anabelle, 7 months.
America has provided more educational opportunities, Jan says.
Ricky, a medical assistant at Carle, has a degree in integrative biology and hopes to become a physician’s assistant. Amy is a certified nursing assistant. Jan trained to be a dental hygienist and works part-time at Frances Nelson Health Center.
America is home now. They’re here for the long haul.
“The time that we’ve been here has been really fantastic,” Alan says. “We’ve really enjoyed the folks here; we’ve made excellent friends. This is a major milestone for us.”
They’re at the federal courthouse in Urbana now, lining up for the naturalization ceremony in Courtroom B. Immigrants from 24 countries, from Algeria to Zimbabwe, are on hand — women in traditional headscarves, others in business attire, babies in carriers.
The Daughters of the American Revolution have prepared snacks on a patriotic table with a curious Statue of Liberty centerpiece, whose bottom half appears to be a fake pine tree. It’s supposed to be a planter, explains the DAR’s Dollie DuMontelle. Liberty is wearing a red, white and blue necklace.
“The judge likes a party,” DuMontelle says. “It’s a great occasion. This is important.”
The Hansens are charmed. Jan contrasts it with the no-frills ceremony they witnessed in Chicago: “It feels more personal and special down here.”
They’ve always been struck by American patriotism — flags outside houses, friends randomly breaking into shouts of “USA, USA!” at bars.
Ricky says his co-workers are as excited about this day as he is.
The Hansens are seated early, and as they wait anticipation builds.
“I’m a little giddy,” Ricky admits.
The ceremony is always a highlight for Bernthal, a rare happy moment in the courtroom.
“I’ve done over 100 of these. They don’t get old. They don’t get boring, because I get to look at your face and see the joy reflected on those faces,” he tells the immigrants.
“It’s a great day for the United States of America,” the judge continues later. “You walked in here a citizen, perhaps of Canada or Algeria, and you walk out that door a citizen of the United States. And that makes us stronger — right now, stronger by 50. That’s how we got here.”
The message resonates with Jan, who nods appreciatively.
Bernthal then asks people to stand as he reads their country of origin. They all take the oath together.
When they’re finished, the Hansens smile. Alan and Jan reach across to each other, the kids between them, and they all join hands.
Bernthal then addresses the crowd, for the first time, as “my fellow Americans.”
A message is read from U.S. Sen. Richard Durbin, a grandson of immigrants. Other officials thank the new citizens for allowing them to share this day.
Bernthal tells them they are planting a seed for their descendants, who will look back at their certificates and say, “Thanks to them I live in the United States. I’m a citizen.’” Ricky nods, saying later he is happy his children will be American.
One by one they line up to get their citizenship certificates, a mini-U.S. flag, a welcome from the DAR, a handshake and congratulations from the judge. Seated again, the family good-naturedly wave their flags together. Jan whisper-shouts, “USA, USA!”
They stand for the pledge of allegiance, hands on their hearts again.
Afterward, they line up for photos with the judge.
“I thought it was lovely, very personal,” Jan says.
“Very uplifting,” agrees Alan.
The family says the ceremony gave them a fresh dedication to their new country.
“Can we register to vote right away?” Ricky asks. (The answer is yes.)
Downstairs, they stop to pose for photos with a serious bald eagle statue. Then it’s back to the apartment to change and have a quick lunch together before heading back to work.
Jan checks her Facebook status: 21 “likes.”
Ricky gets a call from his co-workers at Carle, who all shout “congratulations!” in the background. Before leaving he grabs his flag to show them.
“We’re forever changed now — life as an American citizen.”
Hundreds of new citizens are sworn in each year in Urbana by Judge David Bernthal, who schedules four or more ceremonies annually, as needed. A total of 101 people took the oath at Friday's ceremony. Here's a look at years past:
Source: U.S. District Court, Urbana