Valley Forge National Park Hosts Naturalization Ceremony

Rosalyn Fennell Valley Forge National Park
21 new Americans took the US Oath Of Allegiance at Valley Forge
Westtown School Tennis Coach Fazal Syed Shared His Immigration Story

by Melissa Jacobs

Valley Forge has special meaning to many Americans – especially the 21 people who became U.S. citizens on July 5 at Valley Forge National Historic Park. Standing outside Washington’s Headquarters, the new Americans raised their right hands and took the US Oath of Allegiance, then placed their hands over their hearts and recited the Pledge Of Allegiance.

This was the third time that Valley Forge hosted a naturalization ceremony. Marking the occasion were Valley Forge National Historical Park Superintendent Rosalyn Fennell, Congresswoman Madeleine Dean , Valley Forge Park Alliance vice chair Laura Manion and Valley Forge Park Alliance member Fazal Syed.

A new American citizen with Fazal Syed and Laura Manion.

Now the tennis director at Westtown School in West Chester, Syed came to the US in 1995. At the time, Syed was a national tennis champion in his native India, ranked number one in the 18 and younger category. He also represented India in the Davis Cup. “It was a dream come true,” Syed said. “A dream that came with a lot of hard work.”

But Syed realized that, to realize his full potential, he’d have to go to the US. So, he accepted an athletic scholarship from Temple University and arrived in Philadelphia as a 20-year old eager to experience America. With the help of a great coach, Syed turned pro his senior year of college and spent the next several years traveling the world on the pro tour.

Fazal Syed, Congresswoman Madeleine Dean and National Park Service’s Adam Gresek lead the new citizens in the Pledge of Allegiance.

He was in Los Angeles on September 11, 2001 and was shocked by the terrorist attacks – and that they were carried out by Muslim extremists. Syed was raised Muslim, although he’d never read the Koran and didn’t speak Arabic. “But it was my religion being talked about on the news in terms of it being a hate-filled thing directed at Americans,” he said. “And I thought … Wait, we’re not all like that.”

Nonetheless, Syed got caught up in post-9/11 profiling. At 6’2 with a lanky build and dark skin, Syed apparently looked suspicious to law enforcement. In airports, on subways and even in Chinatown, Syed was routinely stopped and questioned. Those experiences didn’t make him bitter; they made him a better Muslim and, ultimately, an American.

Fazal Syed Valley Forge Park
Fazal Syed, Valley Forge National Historical Park Supt. Rosalyn Fennell and park rangers on July 5 at the naturalization ceremony.

First, he learned Arabic, read the Koran, and started practicing Islam. Indeed, seven Islamic-based principles – wisdom, knowledge, courage, industry, courtesy, compassion and contribution – form the core of Level 7 Tennis, the high-level training camps he runs from the Westtown School.

Then, Syed started the process of becoming an American citizen. The idea of the US as a work in progress appealed to him. “It’s not about being perfect right now, but about becoming a more perfect union – and that requires hard work,” he said.

Just as he’d read the Koran, Syed read biographies of Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and other founding fathers. “I take lessons from them,” he said. “They had work ethics, and studied, and created real change in this country.”

Fazal Syed at Valley Forge National Park

Syed aims to do the same thing. He became a US citizen in 2016 and started holding interfaith meetings based on fellowship and tennis. Shortly thereafter he was asked to join the board of directors of Valley Forge Park Alliance, the nonprofit organization that supports the mission of the national park.

“I met Fazel years ago when he was teaching my son tennis,” said Amy Johnson, president of VFPA’s board of directors. “We began a conversation about his journey to American citizenship. I was in awe that he read a biography of every founding father. Fazel is the voice of our new citizens in Valley Forge National Park.”

VFPA executive director Molly Duffy agrees. “Fazal brings a fresh perspective to the Valley Forge Park Alliance board,” she said. “As a naturalized citizen, he sees this country through a different lens than those of us who were born here. His perspective helps us to achieve our mission at Valley Forge in new and meaningful ways.”

Note: Main Line Tonight’s editor Melissa Jacobs serves on Valley Forge Park Alliance’s board of directors.

Want to learn more about Valley Forge Park Alliance? Visit the organization’s website and get involved with the campaign for VFPA’s new headquarters at the Maurice Stephens House.

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