An educator, a sister, and now a citizen

Sister Nabila Abdel-Malak Gerges is congratulated by students of Saint Michael the Archangel School, Clayton, on March 29, the day after she became an American citizen.
Photo by Alan M. Dumoff

Sister Nabila Abdel-Malak Gerges grew up in Egypt, professed as a religious sister in Rome more than 40 years ago, and was sent to the United States 11 years ago. On March 28, she made another life-changing journey, although she only had to drive north from Clayton to Mount Laurel.

There — with the support of Maryellen Dragone, the school nurse at Saint Michael the Archangel School; four students; and five members of her community, the Missionary Franciscan Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary — Sister Nabila took the Oath of Allegiance at a naturalization ceremony, renouncing her allegiance to Egypt and becoming a United States citizen.

“I like American people. They are very kind, respectful, generous and gentle,” said Sister Nabila, who has been a volunteer and teacher’s aide in the pre-K class at Saint Michael School since 2008. “Freedom was the biggest part! Especially freedom of religion.”

In Egypt, the official state religion is Islam. The Catholic community in Egypt numbers about 272,000, less than 0.5 percent of the population, which is 90 percent Sunni Muslim. The country’s government provides for freedom of religion, but in its latest annual report Amnesty International stated that the government “continued to restrict religious minorities and prosecuted people for defamation of religion.”

Naturalization for Sister Nabila took six months, the average time to process an application. The process included paperwork, documentation, a fee, being photographed and fingerprinted for a background check, an interview — the worst part for Sister; she admits to being very nervous — and passing English and civics questions. (Sister Nabila is tri-lingual, able to speak English as well as Arabic and Italian.)

For the civics test, an oral exam, applicants have to correctly answer six out of 10 questions chosen from a possible 100 questions, some simple (Who is the president?) and some harder (Name one of the writers of the Federalist Papers).

Sister Nabila is now a member of a long list of naturalized U.S. citizens that includes physicist Albert Einstein; Henry Kissinger and Madeleine Albright, who each served as secretary of state; actors Desi Arnaz, Cary Grant and Pamela Anderson; ballet dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov; Olympic gold medal winner Nadia Comaneci; athlete Patrick Ewing; and comedian Bob Hope.

“There is no one with more love in her heart for God or our country than Sister Nabila,” said principal Janice Bruni. “All the students love having Sister be a part of our Saint Michael family.”