WINCHESTER — When Diana Patterson was 12 years old, she helped her parents pack their “entire lives” into two bags as they prepared to leave their home in El Salvador for hopes of a brighter future in the United States.
Eighteen years later and Patterson is now a full citizen, living in Winchester.
“I love it here,” she said. “This country has given me so many opportunities to succeed.”
Patterson, a staffing specialist, was one of five recently naturalized citizens who were celebrated at a party thrown by Literacy Volunteers at Grace Evangelical Lutheran Church on Boscawen Street on Friday.
Several dozen people, including Rep. Jennifer Wexton, D-10th, applauded the new citizens and ate cake decorated with an American flag.
The five new citizens represented a few of the people Literacy Volunteers has helped achieve citizenship through language classes, legal counseling and other services.
Mark Sieffert, executive director of Literacy Volunteers, said the nonprofit will help between 15 and 20 people work toward their citizenship this year.
The five who attended on Friday were among the 18 new citizens who were invited.
“What these men and women have accomplished brings beauty to our community,” Sieffert said.
Sieffert and others attending the party spoke about the current U.S. political climate and the heightened hostility toward immigrants.
“It concerns me deeply that there are members of our society who are ... as American as you and me, who have to live in uncertainty,” Sieffert said.
This month the U.S. House of Representatives passed legislation to create a pathway to citizenship for immigrants brought here as children (Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals) and recipients of Temporary Protected Status. Wexton said the legislation is not likely to pass the Republican-controlled Senate.
“Unless you’re 100 percent Native American, someone in our past came to this country to make a better life,” Wexton said, adding that immigrating today is an increasingly challenging endeavor.
Winchester Mayor Dave Smith said he feels Winchester is a “welcoming” community. “That’s a testament to the people that grew up here.”
But Smith refuted President Donald Trump’s recent comment that the United States is “full.”
“I can definitely tell you we are not full,” Smith said.
Zainab Kargbo, 74, lived most of her life in the African nation of Sierra Leone. She came to the United States in 2009 to be with her family. She arrived at Friday’s party dressed in traditional and brightly colored West African clothing.
“She wanted to be part of this beautiful country, this beautiful people” her son-in-law, Sam Sumana, said on her behalf.
Patterson, who volunteers as a computer skills teacher with Literacy Volunteers, said she feels obligated to get involved in the community as much as she can. She also helped start a Hispanic wing of the Top of Virginia Regional Chamber of Commerce, which has its second meeting this month.
“It’s our responsibility and our duty to give back,” she said, adding that she is helping her parents get their citizenship and engage in the community as well. “I tell them — as soon as you are naturalized, register to vote.”