by CHRIS ROGERS
Two weeks ago, Sammy Gondola became a U.S. citizen. “It’s a huge sense of — just to be honest — relief and joy and happiness and peace,” he said. “I feel like I’ve been adopted.”
Nearly 20 years ago, Gondola came to the U.S. from his native Panama for college, where he met his wife Billee Gondola. He got a work visa and, in 2005, a green card. That green card made Sammy Gondola a “permanent resident” of the U.S., and although he became eligible to apply for citizenship in 2008, for eight-plus-years permanent residency was good enough. Like many naturalized citizens, he described a mix of practical reasons for seeking citizenship and a deeper desire. “I just wanted to be part of the community in a way that is very legitimate and not have to renew [my green card] again and also to be able to vote,” Sammy Gondola said. As the missions pastor at Pleasant Valley Church in Winona, Sammy Gondola leads mission trips overseas all the time. In the last 12 months alone, he has led mission trips to Mexico, Panama, Cuba, and England. Having U.S. citizenship will make those international trips easier. Then there was this: “I feel like America has been my legal guardian … but now that I’m a citizen, it’s like that legal guardian said, ‘OK, I’m adopting you now. I’m giving you my name,’” Sammy Gondola explained. “There’s so much turmoil with immigration right now,” Billee Gondola added of her husband’s new citizenship. “There’s peace of mind that we’ll stay together as a family.”
The pastor was just one of over a dozen naturalized citizens whom Winonans applauded at Project FINE’s Citizenship Day Celebration on Monday, though he seemed to be by far the most recent addition to the group. In a video produced by Project FINE, other immigrants and refugees talked about what it meant to earn U.S. citizenship. It helped me get jobs and a driver’s license, one woman said. A man spoke about how it gave him opportunities to expand his businesses and support his family. “I have rights like all other Americans,” another man said. “It’s very important because it gives me the power to decide who will be the decision makers at the local level, the state level, and at the national level,” Bruno Borsari stated. “I feel like I belong to the community now, and I can confidently apply for a job,” one woman stated. “Feeling connected and feeling I am home — in another home, yes, but in my home,” another woman said.
“We are so proud of you, and we welcome you to our community,” Minnesota State Senator Jeremy Miller told the naturalized citizens in the crowd at Monday’s event.
Monday’s Citizenship Day Celebration is just part of the festivities going on this week in Winona and in St. Charles as part of Project FINE and the two cities’ annual Welcoming Week. The events are all focused on celebrating the contributions and achievements of immigrants and refugees in Winona County and welcoming newcomers. “We are always stronger when we work for each other and not against each other,” said Project FINE Executive Director Fatima Said, herself a former refugee from war and genocide in Bosnia.
Today, at 2 p.m., at the Winona County History Center, Winona Mayor and Winona County Historical Society Executive Director Mark Peterson will give a presentation on the history of ethnicity and immigration in Winona, from the Dakotas to the Hmong. Peterson said his talk will touch on both Winona’s celebrated immigrant tradition and some less proud moments in Winona history, as well, such as when Frederick Douglas came to town to give a speech, but the Huff Hotel refused to lodge him because of his race, or when some Winonans balked at proposals to receive Cuban and Hmong refugees. “We were a city of immigrants for the most part — the Germans and the Irish and Polish and the Norwegians that settled here,” he stated. “Those people built this community, but on the other hand, there was — I think — obviously prejudice here going back to Frederick Douglas not being allowed to stay at the Huff Hotel … and there’s some prejudice in this city yet today. We’re not going to say there isn’t.”
“I think it’s a wonderful thing,” Peterson said of Welcoming Week. “I think that Project FINE does a lot of really good stuff here in Winona, and I appreciate the work that they do. I think they’re important, and I think a diverse community is one that’s a better community.”
This evening, at 6 p.m. at the Winona Public Library, Project FINE will show its film of local immigrants and refugees telling their stories, “Hearing the Voices,” and on Thursday, at 6 p.m. at St. Charles City Hall, Project FINE and the city of St. Charles will host a community celebration with food, entertainment and activities.
For more information, visit http://bit.ly/WelcomingWinonaCounty.