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Immigrant patriot true American


By Sheila Stroup
Staff writer/The Times-Picayune

This is a special kind of love story for the Fourth of July.

It begins in August 1983, when Vrajesh Somalal Shah came to New Orleans from India.

"I was very excited, because I knew I walked on American land," he said. "But then I thought, ‘Oh my God, what am I doing here?' I was nervous, like you are on the first day of school."

He knew only a little English, but he was young and optimistic about the future. He had heard there'd be work in New Orleans because of the upcoming world's fair, and he found his first American job in a French Quarter shop.

He met Connie Zimmermann, a native New Orleanian, in February 1986, and by June they were married.

"My mother and stepdad fixed us up, and it was one of those soul mate things you hear about," Connie said. "I tell people, ‘This is an American version of an arranged marriage.' "

What's in a name?

From the beginning, Vrajesh was "Roger" to his new American friends because nobody could pronounce his Indian name. Every time he'd introduce himself to someone, they'd say, "What? Roger?" and Vrajesh would say, "Roger sounds good."

So when he became a United States citizen in 1993, he officially added "Roger" to his name.

"That was an awesome day," he said. "When I went to the courthouse on Poydras Street and had to stand up and take the oath, that's when I felt like I was a true American."

Connie knew how much becoming a citizen meant to Roger, but she never gave it much thought until last September. They were driving across the Causeway to visit friends in Covington the weekend after the terrorist attacks when he began to talk about what our country means to him.

"He talked about loving the adventurous spirit of Americans and about loving our freedom," Connie said. "He said, ‘In America, I feel like I can soar like an eagle.' "

All about the promise

Connie is a Web designer by profession, but her hobby is writing songs, and Roger's words stayed with her.

It seemed to her that the word "immigrant" had suddenly taken on an ominous meaning, and she wanted to do something to dispel that feeling.

Her idea became "A Proud American," a song to honor Roger's patriotism. "It's all his words. It's his story," she said.

With help from arranger Larry Sieberth, singer Dawn Leaumont and several local musicians and friends, she turned her tribute into a CD single that celebrates patriotic immigrants.

"Everyone who came to America like I did, they need to hear this song," Roger said. "It is about the promise of America, which offers so much."

And how does he feel about the woman who turned his words into a love song to his adopted country?

"She's the most beautiful wife I know," he said. "Every man needs a good wife, and I think she's the best."

. . . . . . .

Sheila Stroup can be reached at

sstroup@timespicayune.com or (985) 898-4831.


© The Times-Picayune.