Merhat Sharipzhan remembers fondly something his father used to tell him when he was growing up in Soviet-controlled Kazakhstan.
“Real Kazakhs should live in America,” he would say. In America, they would be equal, not made to feel like second-class citizens, as they were by the Soviet Union who imposed Russian language and culture upon them.
We were listening to Radio Liberty with my dad when I was a kid, 12 years-old, and that was very important to me at the time.
When Merhat, who is a senior news editor here at RFE/RL and the former head of our Kazakh Service, finally realized his long-held dream of becoming an American citizen last week, he knew just how his father would have felt. His brother Askhat, too. Merhat grew up in a family where the ideals of journalism were important. His father was a well-known satirist who knew that satire was one of the few ways to actually be critical of the ruling establishment. Askhat also went into journalism, but, in 2004, he was tragically killed after interviewing prominent Kazakh opposition leaders.
Merhat described the intensity of emotion he felt as he took the oath of citizenship last Wednesday at the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services office in Fairfax, Va.
“I had so many feelings inside me. First of all, I wished my dad was around. Unfortunately, he passed away in 2002. I wished my brothers were alive to see it too. This is not only my dream -- which came true -- this was the dream of my dad and a hope shared by my brothers. It is thrilling to be part of a country which was always seen as a hope for many people behind the Iron Curtain.”
If you hear one thing around you at school and an absolutely different thing on the radio, from another source, it’s such a thrilling feeling. You know something. You are informed.
Merhat still remembers the impact listening to RFE/RL with his father had on him as a child.
“We were listening to Radio Liberty with my dad when I was a kid, 12 years-old, and that was very important to me at the time," he said. "It’s very hard to understand if you didn’t live in a closed society. If you hear one thing around you at school and an absolutely different thing on the radio, from another source, it’s such a thrilling feeling. You know something. You are informed.”
That was when he started to imagine being part of a free society. And now he is.