ST. ALBANS — After fleeing civil war, living in a Tanzanian refuge camp, moving to a new country, struggling with cultural differences and the challenges of non-citizenship, Agatha Ndyana is finally an American.
“There were a lot of difficulties,” said Ndyana’s granddaughter, Merci, on Tuesday. “There was a lot she couldn’t do as a [non-] citizen.”
Ndyana, who is originally from the African country of Burundi, joined 22 others from 15 other countries – places ranging from Somalia to Mexico to Ireland – in becoming naturalized yesterday afternoon. A ceremony was held in the Bliss Auditorium of the St. Albans Historical Museum, and the room was packed.
Following a rendition of the national anthem sung by Bellows Free Academy-St. Albans students, U.S. Magistrate Judge John M. Conroy of the U.S. District Court Vermont District opened the ceremony.
St. Albans Historical Museum executive director Alex Lehning then welcomed the citizen applicants with a little history.
“Over 150 years ago, this building – indeed, this very room – was founded as a school,” he said. “The lessons they learned here served as a good foundation of citizenship for the community.”
In a similar fashion, the room would serve that purpose a century and a half later by being the base for people to gather, become naturalized, and then go out into the community with the privileges and opportunities of American citizenship.
“We wish you all the best on your journey,” said Lehning.
In addition to the formal involvement of Conroy, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), museum representatives and U.S. Congressional delegation staff members, BFA-St. Albans students played a key part in yesterday’s ceremony.
Veronica Farr, a BFA-St. Albans junior and the daughter of an immigrant, gave a speech to the citizenship applicants.
“My house has a front porch,” said Farr, indicating that it is the first thing she sees upon entering her home and the last thing she sees upon leaving, and that it is an indication of safety, welcome and support.
“I hope that America will be the same gateway,” said Farr. “Right here is a very special place.”
She added that her mother left the Philippines with her family at age 15 to live in America, a courageous, conscious choice that was rewarded with new freedoms, opportunities and safety.
“The United States allows you to choose who you want to be and what you want to do,” said Farr. “This is a family that never leaves one of its own behind.”
She added, “With my deepest and most sincere wishes, I’ll say welcome to America, and welcome to my front porch.”
Farr then handed the floor back to Conroy, who administered the Oath of Allegiance to the 23 new citizens at the front of the room, who held up their hands and repeated the oath after the judge.
Following the final step of naturalization, Conroy emphasized the United States’ commitment to welcoming new citizens.
“Our [country’s] strength truly lies in the diversity of its people,” he said. He added that, with the exception of Native Americans, “In a very fundamental way, we are all immigrants in this country.”
Conroy said, “Our doors are open to you.”
BFA-St. Albans students then performed color guard duties, retiring three flags – including the American Flag – and marching them to the back of the room.
According to BFA-St. Albans civics teacher David Rider, the goal of having students like those in the color guard and Farr being involved in the ceremony was to provide a real-life civics lesson.
Riders said his sophomore civics class was in attendance to see American government truly in action and the hard work people born in other countries do to attain rights and freedoms that U.S. citizens are born with.
“It’s easy to take them for granted,” said Rider. “I also want them to know that our federal government does many helpful things, [like] help these people become citizens.”
Following the ceremony and seven years of waiting, Nydana held a piece of paper signifying she can now fully enjoy the freedoms and rights accessible to United States citizens along with her six grandchildren and their father.
All live in Burlington, and all love their new home country.
“It’s been great – except for the weather,” said Merci, smiling.
While people like Ndyana and 27-year-old Jacqueline Niyonsaba, a refugee and mother of three from Rwanda, were granted citizenship yesterday, others like Niyonsaba’s friend, 20-year-old Yvonne Nigena of Tanzania, are still waiting.
Nigena has lived in Burlington for five years and is in the process of becoming naturalized.
Even without full rights as a citizen, however, Nigena said she feels she belongs here.
“It’s a little cold, but we love it,” said Nigena. “For me, I feel like this is my home, this is my country. This is where I’m going to lead my own life.”