My Story: Three Decades to Citizenship

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Today we are hearing from Fiona BeLieu Williston. Fiona has spent her professional life working with youth and adults to prevent substance abuse. Outside of work, she can be found on her yoga mat teaching at the local YMCA or taking classes. Today, Fiona is talking about her three decade journey to citizenship. 



I took the piece of paper handed to me with the number 47 printed on it and sat down in my seat with numbers 46 and 48 on either side. The older gentleman on my left glanced down at the paper work and worn green card in my hands. He laughed and asked how long I’d been living as a resident.  I replied, “thirty years this July.” He nodded his head and said, “Me too!” I looked at his green card which except for the photo looked identical to mine; created long before electronic scanning and expiration dates.  Staring out from those photos were youthful faces. At the time of issue, I was a new mother entering the U.S. with a military husband and a baby.  I was robbing my British parents of their first grandchild and moving 6,000 miles away.



My journey to citizenship began when I left the United Kingdom as a 12-year child with my family to live in Northern Virginia. You would think shared history, language, and cultures would prevent the pain and confusion of uprooting oneself to a new country, but it was a bewildering experience at a critical time in my development. Early on, a teacher called my mother for a conference and urged her to send me back as I was never going to fit in.  Instead, following the path of countless others, I strove to assimilate and within months was talking, dressing, and acting like any other American teen.  Despite returning to the UK four years later, I retained a soft American accent and strong ties to the country that nurtured me during those formative years.  Six years later, marriage to my American high school sweetheart started that 30-year relationship with a green card.


Unless, you are in the position of leaving your country behind, it is probably hard to understand the dilemma. So much of my heart is vested in the UK; my roots and family of origin are there.  In the intervening years, I divorced, remarried and raised politically engaged children.  I lived vicariously through them, paying close attention but always on the sidelines.  A career in human services enabled me to feel content that I was contributing to the common good. I worked, paid taxes, contributed to campaigns, wrote letters to legislators but each time an election rolled around I was reminded that I was still on the outside looking in.  Each election, I said, “this is the time. I’m going to apply”, but the years drifted by and still I did nothing.  Friends and family coaxed, prompted and encouraged me. One Mother’s Day, my children even bought me a study guide to becoming a US citizen.  The event that finally broke through my complacency was the 2016 election.   Like many others, I entered a period of intense grief and couldn’t understand what had happened.  For the first time in years, I became acutely conscious of my immigration status.  As a white, blue-eyed blonde with an American accent, I was probably unlikely to be targeted but my heart ached for those who didn’t look or speak like me being caught up in a wave of hate and intolerance.  I had to do something.  I needed my voice and vote to count.  



I was unprepared for the joy I felt at my naturalization ceremony.  There were 58 of us from 34 countries all with our own stories.  We were reminded that immigration has been the historical lifeblood of this country contributing to its vitality and diversity.  I felt welcomed and included.  Finally, part of the club.  I was no longer that awkward and confused 12-year-old who was never going to fit in.


My first act of citizenship was to proudly register to vote and I eagerly await the April primaries. I urge other people in my situation to take the plunge and be all in.  And for those who have always enjoyed the right to vote, please use the power of the ballot box to make this nation into its true intent.  It may be a well-worn cliché, but we are meant to be that beacon of light and tolerance where people from all over the world come to pursue life, liberty and happiness.


Fiona BeLieu Williston, 56 years young, lives in Boiling Springs, a small Pennsylvania village on the Appalachian Trail.  She has spent her professional life working with youth and adults to prevent substance abuse.  Outside of work, she can be found on her yoga mat teaching at the local YMCA or taking classes.  In her spare time, she likes to hike, bike and ski in the beautiful South Central PA countryside.   


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