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Thursday, May 18, 2017

Great Neighbors Become Great Citizens

David, Marci, Benji and Elizabeth Raska at Marci's ceremony (provided)
by Colin Moore

In April Fort Thomas welcomed two new Americans.

Last month NKU Professor David Raska and his wife Marci became fully naturalized US citizens, although they’ve been citizens of Fort Thomas for a lot longer. As a gift, their next door neighbors Don and Judy Baumann gave them two flags, an American flag and a Czech flag, in honor of their roots. There is a Czech proverb that says, "A good neighbor increases the value of your property." David and Marci believe that over the last eight years Don and Judy have given them much more:

“When you move to a new place you don’t control who lives next door. We’re so fortunate to have Don and Judy as neighbors. They’ll never know how much they’ve given us, it really feels like having grandparents next door.”

David and Marci were both born in the Czech Republic and first moved to the Fort Thomas area in late 2009. David had finished his PhD at Washington State and was looking for his first teaching job. Most PhD students who are looking for teaching jobs might apply to every college that is hiring, but David was a little more selective: NKU was one of only five schools he applied to.

“I wasn’t interested in a job in a place I didn’t like!” David and Marci are rock climbing enthusiasts, to the extent that David has transformed their garage into a climbing gym. NKU made David’s shortlist as they had climbed at Red River Gorge before and knew there are good climbing areas nearby. When NKU made David an offer, he accepted immediately, without even asking how much he’d earn. “I loved it immediately. I loved the people. They were warm hearted, you could tell they did their work because they loved the students and they really connected with me.”

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They spent a few months travelling from Washington to Northern Kentucky, sleeping in the back of their car and climbing all over the country. When they arrived their thoughts turned to finding someplace to call home. They immediately liked Fort Thomas as it reminded them of Europe. Marci remembers “We wanted to be able to walk to work, to shops, to restaurants. There was a downtown area with shops and restaurants, curved streets rather than a grid, it just felt like home.” It ticked all the boxes for David too, he wanted to be able to cycle to work, and still does eight years later. They closed on their home on September 29th, the anniversary of their first date. “It was a nice present!” Marci and David still live in the same house, although now they have two children, Benji, 6, and Elizabeth, 2, who were both born at Christ Hospital in Cincinnati.

They felt at home in Fort Thomas immediately. It helped that their neighbors Don and Judy Baumann are “The best neighbors on Earth,” according to Marci. The Baumanns have been married for sixty two years and lived in the same house for more than fifty years, raising their own family there. David feels like they are family. “Mentally they feel like grandmother and grandfather for our kids. I think it really helps the kids to have someone that reminds them of their grandparents.”

Don and Judy Baumann (photo: Amy Sapsford)

For Judy Baumann the feeling is very much mutual. She calls the Raska children “cherubs.” On being an honorary grandparent she says that “I am honoured that they think of us that way, we cherish them as neighbors, they are so charming.” Their daughter, Amy Sapsford is also fond of the Raskas, "They are such sweet neighbors for our parents!"

The Baumanns wanted to give the Raskas a gift to celebrate their naturalisation. Through a congressman they ordered an American flag which was flown above the U.S. Capitol. Their daughter, Amy, also managed to track down a Czech flag. The Raskas really appreciate the thought behind the gesture. “It was so nice of them to get us such a special flag and also to think of our Czech background.”

The process of becoming an American citizen doesn’t happen overnight. When David first began his studies they both had student visas. When he started work at NKU the university successfully applied for a work permit, which then became green cards. After five years holding green cards the Raskas could apply for citizenship, and even then it took some time to be processed. They first applied in October 2016 and became citizens in April 2017. In between times they filled out paperwork, had background checks, interviews and took a civics test. “There’s one hundred questions and they sent a booklet that covers the test and a CD. With two kids it’s hard to find time to sit down to study. We listened to the CD in the car and soon we remembered it all. Even Benji (their six year old son) learned all the answers, they’d ask “Who would become President if the president and Vice President cannot?” and he’d shout “The Speaker of the House!””

The thought of so many interviews and background checks might seem intimidating, but the Raskas found the immigration officials to be welcoming. David recalls, “Everyone we met was very nice and very warm.” After passing their tests and interviews they were finally ready to become American citizens but their final experiences were a little different.

David became a citizen on a Wednesday in Louisville. The ceremony was conducted in the basement of a government building, in the cafeteria. David remembers the atmosphere as being “relaxed.” By contrast Marci’s ceremony was a little more grand. She took citizenship two days later, in Frankfort. Her ceremony was the first ever to take place in the State Capitol building and was attended by the Secretary of State for Kentucky.

Although they are now full American citizens, David, Marci and their family travel back to the Czech republic for a couple of months a year to visit family. Marci says they that in the US they “used to miss Czech beer and food but now when we go there David says, “What am I going to do without Rhinegeist for two months!””

The family’s visits to the Czech Republic help to remind their children that they’re Czech as well as American. “We teach them Czech but they feel more comfortable speaking English here. We hope that the two months in the Czech Republic refreshes their Czech. They both understand well and as the two months goes on they get more confident speaking Czech too.”

There’s also a small Czech community here that gets together and keeps up Czech traditions such as St Nicholas Night, which also helps with homesickness. Marci and a friend who lives close by also have a small business making jewellery from Czech glass.

The two flags that Don and Judy gave the Raskas serve as a reminder of the dual nature of their children’s backgrounds. While they will always have a part of them which will be Czech, for Marci, “They are Americans, this is their home, and our home too.”

The Raskas at Newport (provided) 

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