Eighty people were naturalised as British overseas territory citizens on Tuesday during a ceremony at Government House, on the heels of another 80 who were naturalised last week.
“Today’s ceremony is the second unprecedented one for this month,” Registrar General Stephanie Benn said at the ceremony. “This is due to the surge of applications after the 2017 hurricanes.”
For Loubaba Tarabay, not having a Virgin Islands passport meant that after she lost all her possessions during Hurricane Irma she couldn’t leave the territory.
Normally she has to travel to St. Maarten and then to Paris to get back to her native Lebanon, but the St. Maarten airport was badly damaged and she couldn’t travel through the United States on her Lebanese passport.
She ultimately had to contact the Lebanese government to help her leave the territory.
Once she was back in Lebanon with her two children, her attempts to get a US visa were unsuccessful, and she couldn’t come back to Tortola to visit her husband.
“It’s very hard when your kids have a passport and you don’t have a passport,” she said. “You can’t go anywhere.”
She ultimately enrolled her children in a Lebanese school and then had to wait 10 months for them to finish the school year before her family was reunited.
Now, after 10 years in the VI, she has finally obtained citizenship through her husband, who was born in Tortola, and she can get the same passport as the rest of her family.
“It’s nice: You feel like you belong to this country,” she said. “And finally you have a passport to travel if something happens.”
Now with a third child on the way, she’ll be able to travel easily to Puerto Rico to buy things for her baby.
“Finally I can do everything,” she said. “Finally.”
Acting Premier Natalio “Sowande” Wheatley gave remarks on behalf of Premier Andrew Fahie, who was out of the territory, at the Tuesday ceremony, which was also attended by Transportation, Works and Utilities Minister Kye Rymer and Junior Minister of Tourism Shereen Flax Charles.
During his speech, Mr. Wheatley commended the citizens for their “fortitude” and “commitment” throughout the “long and arduous” naturalisation process, which he acknowledged can include challenges such as “difficulty with employers; of course the very inefficient immigration process; the fear in the community of the unknown; the feelings of sometimes unwelcomeness.”
He went on to express the new government’s commitment to streamlining the process.
“Premier Fahie and his administration wants to make this process more transparent, more efficient, more effective, more logical,” he said. “Because we recognise that with diversity there is strength.”
The minister later told the Beacon that while the administration has been outspoken on this issue, the recent upswing in naturalisations is the result of an ongoing effort started before the new government came into power.
“I think the Governor’s Office will have started that from before,” he said. “But it certainly goes along with our thinking that persons who have done their years, they have contributed, they should be regularised.”
Governor Gus Jaspert also spoke at the ceremony, commending the new citizens for their commitment to the VI.
“In a very similar setting last week I had the opportunity to remind 80 recipients like you that the British Virgin Islands, like any other rapidly growing community, attracts interest from outside and the opportunities available,” he said. “Some of those so attracted will stay for a short period and leave, but others, such as yourselves, will choose to remain, and by continuing to contribute positively and productively to the community you have joined, will obtain the necessary clearances.”
Jael Hodge, a San Diego native who has lived in the VI for more than 20 years and raised two children here, was one of those recipients.
Ms. Hodge said she was “so excited” to be a citizen after her two-and-a-half-year application process.
“It feels wonderful,” she said. “It’s been a bit arduous — some setbacks, especially the 2017 storms. So it’s been an arduous journey, but I’m very happy and excited to be a BOTC. I’m honoured.”