The sign in Kamala Prahl’s office is in red, white and blue.
It was written on a wipe board by co-workers, but she has no intention of erasing it.
“Citizen of USA. One of — We The People.”
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The meaning is engraved in her soul.
Prahl became a U.S. citizen Aug. 14.
“I want to look at it every day,” said the 53-year-old human resources specialist with Administrative Concepts Corp. “I want to feel it every morning when I come here.”
What she feels is freedom, something many Americans take for granted.
Not after growing up in the Soviet bloc.
Not after the emotional experience she shared with 550 people from 85 counties taking the citizenship oath in Tampa last month.
“I looked around and I saw a lot of people just crying. All adults, grown people,” said Prahl, who immigrated 10 years ago. “I had tears in my eyes, too. You’re overwhelmed feeling this is my home now. I was happy.”
Prahl grew up in the former Soviet republic of Azerbaijan — “Between two lovely neighbors: Russia and Iran” — where life was comfortable.
Dad was a construction engineer; mom, a doctor.
Theirs was a learned, loving family.
“My father said if you have a big heart, people will gravitate to you. And if you have a good education, your bread will always be buttered — sometimes with caviar,” Prahl kidded.
Yet, a sense of unease persisted in their lives.
“My parents always said whatever we have is temporary,” Prahl recalled. “It might come. It might go.”
She found out in threatening fashion at 15.
A classmate had badgered her to join Komsomol, the Communist youth party.
Prahl said no thanks with a mild rebuke of the party.
That night her father was phoned by the school.
If Prahl didn’t apologize, she’d be reported.
If that happened, her father might lose his job. Or worse.
“My God, I’d said something that might hurt my family,” she said. “It was the first time I had that sheer feeling of fear.”
Nancy Gabriel, an ACC executive, told of how a roomful of co-workers, celebrating Prahl’s new citizenship, fell silent at that story.
“It brought tears to our eyes,” she said. “I could not imagine living under those conditions.”
Prahl never forgot the fear, even as a college language instructor.
“I told students, yes, you need to think, but if anyone said a word politically, I would stop them immediately,” she said.
After being invited to the U.S. for an educational tour in 1997, Prahl was enamored by the country and returned two years later.
She left her daughter behind, the college job, too, got re-married and worked as a school secretary while studying for a master’s degree.
“I realized, it’s a new life, a new country. You have to start somewhere. That’s the price you’re paying for living in a free country,” Prahl said. “I said I must start from scratch. And I did.”
Vin Mannix, local columnist, can be reached at 745-7055, or write him at Bradenton Herald, P.O. Box 921, Bradenton 34206 or e-mail him at email@example.com. Please include a phone number for verification.