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2011 Outstanding American by Choice Recipients

Archived Content

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January 29, 2011
Bloomington, MN
Gerda Weissmann Klein
Founder, Citizenship Counts; Holocaust Survivor; Author; and Human Rights Activist
Phoenix, Arizona

Citizenship Counts was founded by Gerda Weissmann Klein who wanted to teach today’s youth and the greater community-at-large that American citizenship is a gift that should not be taken for granted. Mrs. Klein is a humanitarian, author, human rights activist, Holocaust survivor and a proud naturalized citizen of the United States. For more than six decades, Mrs. Klein has captivated audiences worldwide with her powerful messages of hope, inspiration, love and humanity.

Mrs. Klein was born in 1924 in Bielsko, Poland. In 1939 her life changed when German troops invaded her hometown of Bielsko. From 1939 until the end of World War II she lived in fear and deprivation. After being separated from her brother shortly after the invasion and from her parents in 1942, she worked in slave labor and concentration camps until she was forced to walk in a 350-mile death march. She never lost the will to live. When World War II ended in 1945, she was left homeless and without family or friends. Despite all that was lost, she found a fairy-tale ending when she married her liberator, U.S. Army Intelligence Officer, Kurt Klein. Two years after she immigrated to the United States, Mrs. Klein became an American citizen. The story of their meeting and life together was documented in her autobiography, All But My Life, which has been in print for 53 years, in 62 editions and has been read by countless students around the world.     


September 13, 2011
Washington, DC
Arturo E. Howard
Chief Warrant Officer, U.S. Coast Guard
Washington, District of Columbia

Chief Warrant Officer (CWO) Arturo E. Howard has been selected for this honor for persistent and selfless dedication to the U.S. Coast Guard and to his community throughout his exemplary career. He was born in Colombia in 1967 and always dreamed of living a more adventurous life. CWO Howard joined the U.S. Coast Guard in 1995 and has held numerous leadership positions.

While assigned to Coast Guard Patrol Forces South West Asia and working in the Middle East, CWO Howard trained and certified over 500 U.S. Department of Defense, British Royal Marine, Bahraini Coast Guard, and Iraqi Marine personnel in vessel boarding tactics and techniques. Additionally, working closely with the Multi-National Security Transition Command-Iraq, CWO Howard developed the plans and materials required to build the 4,500 square foot Iraqi Navy Visit, Board, Search, and Seizure Training Facility in Southern Iraq. For his distinguished performance, CWO Howard received two of his highest personal awards, the Coast Guard Meritorious Service Medal and the Joint Service Achievement Medal.

In addition to distinguishing himself during assignments, CWO Howard is actively involved in the Coast Guard’s Chief Warrant Officer Association as the liaison to the Armed Forces Retirement Home in Washington, DC. He has volunteered numerous hours working to improve the quality of life for the residents of the retirement home.

CWO Howard became a naturalized citizen in 1998.


September 13, 2011
Washington, DC
Joseph A. Banco, Jr.
Associate Chief, U.S. Border Patrol, U.S. Customs and Border Protection
Washington, District of Columbia

Joseph A. Banco, Jr. has supported the United States for 31 years through combined military and government service. He was born in the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia on the Istrian peninsula in 1962, which was ceded to Yugoslavia from Italy after World War II. As part of the peninsula’s assimilation into Yugoslavia, Mr. Banco’s family was forced to change the spelling of their name from Banco to Banko. The government would also decide who could obtain a higher education. Wanting a better life for their family, Mr. Banco’s parents moved to the United States in 1966. At the age of ten, Mr. Banco stood alongside his parents taking the Oath of Allegiance and pledging his commitment to the United States. With U.S. citizenship, the family returned to their original family name, Banco.

Mr. Banco is an Associate Chief with the Office of Chief at the U.S. Border Patrol within U.S. Customs and Border Protection in Washington, DC. Throughout his 31-year government career, Mr. Banco has consistently demonstrated that he is a distinguished public servant and has held several leadership positions. He began serving his country in the U.S. Air Force at the age of 17, defending our Nation for over 14 years as a Law Enforcement Specialist and Disaster Preparedness Manager, serving in Operation Desert Storm, and attaining the rank of Master Sergeant. He has continued that faithful service throughout his 16-year career in the U.S. Border Patrol serving on our Nation’s southwest, coastal, and northern borders as well as internationally.

Mr. Banco became a naturalized citizen in 1973.


September 13, 2011
Washington, DC
Omar Cruz
Lead Cyber Threat Analyst, Threat Analysis & Defense Section, IT Security Branch, Federal Emergency Management Agency
Washington, District of Columbia

Omar Cruz is the lead for the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) Cyber Threat Program, which focuses on monitoring, safeguarding, and protecting FEMA’s Enterprise Network against cyber attacks. He was born in the Dominican Republic and arrived in the United States in 1992 at the age of 12, settling in Passaic, NJ. Even though Mr. Cruz was faced with childhood adversity, he was diligent with his studies and four years after arriving in the United States became fluent in English. After graduating from high school in 1997, he enlisted in the United States Marine Corps while still a permanent resident, serving not as a citizen, but a citizen at heart.

Mr. Cruz has received numerous awards and recognitions for his military service including the Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal, Marine Corps Good Conduct Medal, and the Armed Forces National Defense Service Medal. He was also named Marine of the Year in 2000 at Marine Corps Base Headquarters and Service Battalion in Quantico, VA. Additionally for his service to the community, he received special recognition for participating in the Marine Corps Base Quantico Mentorship Program for elementary students serving as a role model for area youth.

After his military service, Mr. Cruz earned his bachelor’s degree in Network and Communications Management. He began his federal career with FEMA in 2010.

Mr. Cruz became a naturalized citizen in 2000.


September 13, 2011
Washington, DC
Betty Nguyen Phillips
Information System Security Officer, U.S. Secret Service
Washington, District of Columbia

In 1971, Betty Nguyen Phillips and her family left their war torn country of Vietnam. Ms. Phillips’ father was offered a job with the Voice Of America in Washington, DC, and from there the family of six, including four children, began their journey to the United States. During her first three years in the United States, she became proficient in English and the customs of her new country.

In 1982, Ms. Phillips joined the U.S. Secret Service becoming the first Vietnamese-American hired by the Secret Service. During her 29 years with the agency she has held several mission-critical positions, including being the first Criminal Research Specialist and Investigative System Specialist in the Secret Service.

In November 2005, she was hired by the Security Engineering Section of the Resources Management Division as the first Information System Security Officer in the Secret Service. Her current position requires her to ensure the security of a number of applications in the agency, including the agency’s Financial and Procurement applications, Computer Aide Facility Management System, and the Learning Management System.

Ms. Phillips is now a six-year breast cancer survivor. She participates annually in the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure, not only for herself, but for her mother-in-law and sister who did not survive their own trials with breast cancer.

Ms. Phillips became a naturalized citizen in 1980.


September 13, 2011
Washington, DC
Nawar Shora
Senior Policy Advisor, Office of the Special Counselor, Transportation Security Administration
Washington, District of Columbia

Nawar Shora was born in Damascus, Syria, and immigrated with his family to the United States in 1987, settling in West Virginia. In law school, Mr. Shora focused his studies on cyber law, but after the events of 9/11, he quickly recognized the need for community organizations to proactively engage federal agencies and law enforcement. Mr. Shora developed a nationally recognized training program and accompanying book, The Arab-American Handbook, used by the FBI and other law enforcement agencies.

With the creation of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Mr. Shora was asked to coordinate efforts with the DHS Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties. Because of his success with the FBI and other agencies, he was brought in to help with trainings and projects that would eventually come to be known as Countering Violent Extremism.

In late 2009, Mr. Shora decided to dedicate himself full-time to serving his country as a civil servant. Mr. Shora joined the Transportation Security Administration as a Senior Policy Advisor with the Office of the Special Counselor. He was part of a small cadre of staff chosen to help build the foundation of a paradigm shift within the TSA screening process to better balance the security and liberty of the traveling public.

Mr. Shora became a naturalized citizen in 1993.


September 13, 2011
Washington, DC
Aster Zeleke
Deputy Director, Newark Asylum Office, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services
Newark, New Jersey

Aster Zeleke is the Deputy Director of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) Newark Asylum Office. Ms. Zeleke brings to her position a commitment to working with refugees, and first-hand knowledge of the refugee experience, having originally come to the United States as an Ethiopian refugee in 1983.

As a politically-active bank clerk and university student during the brutal Mengistu regime in Ethiopia, Ms. Zeleke was aware that she could ultimately be detained. As a result, in 1977, Ms. Zeleke applied for and received a scholarship to further her education in Romania earning a Master of Science degree in Economics from the University of Timisoara in 1982. With her student visa expiring, Ms. Zeleke and her husband had some critical life decisions to make. The Mengistu regime was still fully entrenched in Ethiopia so returning to her homeland was not an option. The two went to Greece and immediately began looking for refuge.

In August 1983, Ms. Zeleke and her husband arrived in the United States. Ms. Zeleke was committed to assisting other refugees like herself. She worked as a Resettlement Counselor with the Presbyterian Refugee and Immigrant Ministry Efforts in Philadelphia, PA, for eight years before joining the former Immigration and Naturalization Service, beginning her government career as a public servant.

Ms. Zeleke became a naturalized citizen on September 13, 1989, exactly 22 years to the day that she received this recognition.


Portrait by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders

September 23, 2011
Washington, DC

Madeleine K. Albright
Chair, Albright Stonebridge Group; Chair, Albright Capital Management LLC; Professor, Georgetown University; and Former Secretary, U.S. Department of State
Washington, District of Columbia

Madeleine K. Albright is Chair of Albright Stonebridge Group, a global strategy firm, and Chair of Albright Capital Management LLC, an investment advisory firm focused on emerging markets. In 1997, she was named the first female Secretary of State and became, at that time, the highest ranking woman in the history of the U.S. government. As Secretary of State, Dr. Albright reinforced America’s alliances, advocated for democracy and human rights, and promoted American trade, business, labor, and environmental standards abroad. From 1993 to 1997, Dr. Albright served as the U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations and was a member of President Clinton’s Cabinet. From 1989 to 1992, she served as President of the Center for National Policy. Previously, she was a member of President Carter’s National Security Council and White House staff and served as Chief Legislative Assistant to U.S. Senator Edmund S. Muskie.

Dr. Albright is a Professor in the Practice of Diplomacy at the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service. She chairs both the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs and the Pew Global Attitudes Project and serves as president of the Truman Scholarship Foundation. Dr. Albright is the author of four New York Times bestsellers, including her autobiography. She received a B.A. with Honors from Wellesley College, and Master’s and Doctorate degrees from Columbia University’s Department of Public Law and Government.


October 24, 2011
Seattle, WA

Alma Plancich
Executive Director, Ethnic Heritage Council
Seattle, Washington

Since 1996, Alma Franulovic Plancich has served as the Executive Director of the Ethnic Heritage Council (EHC). Established in 1980 as a non-profit organization, the EHC works to preserve and document ethnic heritage and advance cross-cultural understanding in local communities. Ms. Plancich has devoted her life to inspiring others to discover the roots of their own heritage. In 1975, she and her family founded the Vela Luka Croatian Dance Ensemble and the Ruze Damatinke Orchestra.

Ms. Plancich was born in the town of Vela Luka on the island of Korcula in Croatia. In 1944, the Nazis invaded and bombed her hometown. During the siege, Ms. Plancich and her family fled to Italy where they spent the next two years forced to move from one refugee camp to another. In 1949, the Franulovic family entered the United States settling in Anacortes, WA.  Ms. Plancich attended Central Washington University, where she majored in English and later attended the University of Washington, taking courses in the Slavic Languages Department.

Ms. Plancich became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1954.



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