By Dan McWilliams
If anyone was looking for Venezuelan empanadas, South Asian samosas, Vietnamese bahn mis, or baklava in late June, then Suttree Landing Park in South Knoxville was the place to be.
The Office of Immigrant Services, a Catholic Charities of East Tennessee program, held a Welcoming Knoxville Festival on June 26 at the park just across the river from downtown.
The event turned the spotlight on new U.S. citizens who didn’t have a special ceremony celebrating their lifechanging moment last year because of the COVID-19 situation. Immigrant-owned small businesses catered Welcoming Knoxville.
“Today we are holding a Welcoming Knoxville Festival together with the city of Knoxville and Welcoming America,” said Alessandra Ceccarelli, program leader of the Office of Immigrant Services. “This is an event that welcomes and recognizes newly sworn-in citizens. In the last year, due to the pandemic, there have not been ceremonies, so folks who were naturalized … didn’t have the opportunity to have a nice ceremony with family and to really celebrate.”
“Citizenship is the end goal of the immigrants who are here,” Ms. Ceccarelli continued. “They really want to be a part of this community 100 percent. Not having been able to celebrate it, that was a disappointment for many. This is really to celebrate the diversity and the richness of the Knoxville and East Tennessee immigrant and refugee community.”
Knoxville Mayor Indya Kincannon attended Welcoming Knoxville.
“The city of Knoxville is a welcoming community, and we know that immigrants and refugees are a wonderful part of our community,” the mayor said. “They bring a lot of economic energy and cultural vibrancy to our city, so I’m glad that we can celebrate our new citizens. It’s a naturalization celebration today, and it’s just really good stuff.”
Two siblings from Guatemala attended the event. Veronica Mendéz has been a citizen since March, and her brother, Andres Francisco, has been naturalized for three years. They spoke to The East Tennessee Catholic via interpreter Luis Mata, who is with the Office of Immigrant Services.
“I’m very happy, very joyful” at being a citizen. “I am now ‘from here,’” Ms. Mendéz said.
Attending Welcoming Knoxville “warms my heart, and it makes me very happy to be here celebrating what is now my country,” she added.
Mr. Francisco said that “citizenship has a lot of importance to me. A lot of times many immigration benefits and resources that come with that or any type of benefit is very temporary, as opposed to becoming a citizen—it is permanent.”
He said that celebrations such as Welcoming Knoxville “are very important because oftentimes in many of these cases a celebration isn’t really what is done for such a huge event like becoming a citizen. I think an event like this is wonderful for celebrating. Thank you so much to [the Catholic Charities of East Tennessee Office of Immigrant Services] for being here for the event and for essentially celebrating such a ‘momentous moment.’”