CAMP FOSTER, OKINAWA, Japan --
To celebrate the day in which the U.S. Constitution was signed, each year on September 17, Americans recognize Constitution Day and Citizenship Day. It is a time to reflect on the rights and responsibilities as a U.S. citizen, and to celebrate and recognize those who are taking their steps towards American citizenship.
Among the hundreds of service members who made their journey to U.S. citizenship is Lance Cpl. Rhys Stewart. He lived in St. Catherine, Jamaica, with his parents for the first 17 years of his life and in 2017, his grandfather who was already living in the U.S., filed for Stewart and his parents to immigrate to Brooklyn, New York.
“There are a lot of similarities between Jamaica and the U.S., but they have entirely different cultures,” said Stewart, an administrative specialist with the Installation Personnel Administration Center on Camp Foster. “There were many adjustments that I had to make, but the very moment I stepped onto American soil, I felt welcome.”
Some of the initial challenges Stewart and his family faced were the environmental changes and linguistic differences. Not only did they go from a tropical climate to chilly New York temperatures, they had to adjust from speaking Jamaican Patois, an English-based creole language, to English.
After completing immagration processes and moving to New York with his family, Stewart was eager to join and serve his new country, but was still lacking his high school diploma. After finishing out his two remaining years of high school, Stewart was recruited out of Recruiting Substation East New York and became a Marine after graduating from Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island.
“If I had told that 17 year-old kid that in two years, he would be a U.S. Marine stationed in Okinawa, he wouldn’t have believed it,” said Stewart. “Moving to the U.S. opened so many opportunities for me I thought I would never have.”
On July 1, the day finally came for Stewart to receive his certificate of naturalization. He explained that it was a challenging experience to wait for it, but extremely rewarding and satisfying when the certification was handed to him.
“I think the hardest part for my son was the wait,” said Helorie Stewart, Stewart’s mother and a native of St. Catherine, Jamaica. “Two years after joining the Marine Corps, he was finally given his certificate of naturalization. Knowing he was finally naturalized was like a breath of fresh air for our whole family.”
Stewart’s mother explained that when Stewart joined the Marines, he was allowed to apply for citizenship ahead of the rest of his family. She said that the rest of the family recently became qualified to apply, and are on their journey to American citizenship.
Although now stationed in Okinawa and living in another foreign country, Stewart never forgets his Jamaican roots or the sacrifices his family made to immigrate to the U.S. He often keeps in contact with his family, and spending time at the beach is his favorite pastime as it reminds him of the tropical environment he grew up in for 17 years.
“It was never just about getting my citizenship,” said Stewart. “It was always about becoming a Marine.”