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KCK exhibit focuses on naturalized citizens

The Kansas City Star

On Friday, flanked by the images and stories of those who have come before, 92 people of 33 nationalities entered a Kansas City, Kan., courtroom.

They exited an hour later, all U.S. citizens.

Then the new naturalized citizens gathered and took a closer look at the images and photos that make up a new exhibit, “Americans By Choice: The Story of Immigration and Citizenship in Kansas.”

“It physically puts them in the context of this bigger story,” said Jean Svadlenak, a museum consultant who developed the project, which opened last month at the Robert J. Dole U.S. Courthouse.

The exhibit, featuring nearly 75 personal stories of people naturalized in Kansas, is on the sixth floor outside where naturalization ceremonies take place. The project, which also includes a semi-permanent exhibit for the courthouse in Wichita and a traveling exhibit, was funded privately by the District of Kansas Bench-Bar Committee in honor of the 150th anniversary of Kansas.

“Naturalization is such a huge part of what we do in regard to our relationship to the citizens of the state of Kansas,” said U.S. District Judge Kathryn H. Vratil.

Svadlenak spent more than two years researching and collecting documents, photographs and interviews with people naturalized in the state.

“There is real diversity in terms of nationality and reasons why they came to the United States,” she said.

The parents of one man, Ernie Rosenthal, had fled Europe to escape the Holocaust, and when she found their application she searched, hoping to find a relative. Svadlenak interviewed Rosenthal and included images of his parents and citizenship certificate.

One exhibit charts changes in immigration laws over the years with a booklet on each law, its consequences and the story of a Kansan it affected.

The exhibit also includes an interactive kiosk that lets viewers try their hand at the citizenship test plus a video with testimonials.

Another video, narrated by Vratil, is shown before ceremonies to those being naturalized.

“It is one of the highlights in the life of any federal judge,” Vratil said.

After their ceremony Friday, the new citizens stopped and took photos in front of the exhibit. Others sorted through new documents.

One woman, Hiwot Begashaw, 43, of Gardner moved to the United States from Ethiopia when she was 18.

“I feel at home,” she said. “I’ve been feeling at home for a long time.”

The free exhibit is open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays.

@ Go to for a photo gallery.

To reach Kathleen Pointer, call 816-234-7701 or send email to

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