New U.S. citizens sworn in at Holocaust Museum
By MIKE ISAACS firstname.lastname@example.org
From left, Natala Barysevich of Northbrook and Olha Hudzyk of Des Plaines take the Oath of Allegiance at a swearing-in ceremony today at the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center.
Nearly 120 city and suburban residents will celebrate their first Thanksgiving as U.S. citizens next week after they took the Oath of Allegiance Thursday at the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center in Skokie.
The melting pot that is America was well represented at the museum where friends and families gathered to witness a special day. Many of those who were sworn in have lived in the United States for years and said they had dreamed of this moment for such a long time.
"For me, this day is one of the best days I've ever had," said Chicago's George Petre, who emigrated from Romania in 1999. "I am just so excited."
When Petre first arrived in Chicago, he spoke little English, but he learned the language quickly and took advantage of opportunities he says he never had before.
"We live in a free country where there are many opportunities for education and business," he said. A pastor, the president of his own heating and cooling company and a licensed professional in electro cardiograms, Petre has never slowed down since he got here.
Romania was one of 30 countries represented at the naturalization ceremony in Skokie. The new citizens came to the United States from countries around the globe: Afghanistan and Argentina to Thailand and Turkey, Mexico and Macedonia to China and Columbia, Ecuador and Egypt to Pakistan and the Philippines, the Sudan and Syria to Egypt and El Salvador. Most of the citizens were born in Mexico, India and Poland.
When their country of origin was called, citizens stood in the museum's large basement room, which officially was designated as a federal courtroom for just this event.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Morton Denlow, once a new U.S. citizen himself, administered the Oath of Allegiance.
"Over 50 years ago on March 4, 1955, my parents, my brother and I were seated in a courtroom in St. Louis, Missouri, and my parents took the same oath that you are about to take today," Denlow told them.
Both Holocaust survivors, Denlow's parents immigrated to the United States following World War II to seek a better life for their family, he said.
"Your children and your grandchildren will always be thankful to you for becoming American citizens today," Denlow told the group. "If anyone knows the courage and determination it takes to start over in a new country, it is you."
Denlow urged the new citizens to tell their story to the next generation "so they will always appreciate our great country."
The story of Morton Grove residents Haitham Jamil Youkhana and his wife, Badria, took an exciting turn when they arrived from Iraq in 1997, they said.
"I've been waiting 12 years for this," said Youkhana, a civil engineer. "It means everything. To get the privileges of being an American is something so special that it's hard to even (articulate)."
One of those privileges, the right to vote, was available only minutes after citizens were sworn in. Cook County Clerk David Orr set up a registration drive in the adjoining room where many new citizens headed after picking up their certificates.
"After 12 years of being here, I just have a stronger feeling now of belonging," said Northbrook's George Sorial after he was sworn in Thursday. Sorial was born in Egypt and came here from Canada. "I had grown very accustomed to living here, but having the same citizenship as the rest of my family means a lot to me."
Juan Reynoso of Chicago, a waiter who arrived from Mexico 23 years ago, was even more succinct. "This is about becoming part of the American dream," he said. "Just being part of what America is all about is incredible."
Some new citizens and their friends and families dabbed at their eyes during the ceremony. Skokie Post 328 of the Jewish War Veterans of the USA posted and then retired colors; the Classic Act Chorale Ensemble sang the "National Anthem" and "America the Beautiful"; a DVD message from President Obama followed a display of images accompanied by Lee Greenwood's "God Bless the USA."
For Angela Betancourt of Niles, the ceremony only intensified her own desire to become a U.S. citizen. She arrived from Columbia four years ago and was here to watch her daughter's friend become a U.S. citizen.
"She was so excited and was just counting the days," Betancourt said. "She loves America and has wanted more than anything else to become a citizen."
So does Betancourt, who still is officially a temporary resident. She plans to apply for citizenship as soon as her residence is permanent, she said.
Vlademer Matusami, a cab driver from Round Lake, became a U.S. citizen in October. He was at the museum Thursday to watch his wife, Yelena, attain citizenship as well.
"It's a very beautiful day," he said disregarding the steady rain outside. "It's a very beautiful day because we came here (from Russia) 12 years ago and now we are citizens. Yes, this is a very, very good day."
It's not every day that a naturalization ceremony takes place outside of a federal courtroom. But the museum teamed with the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago and the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS Chicago) to stage the special event.
"Today's newest (U.S.) citizens hail from so many different countries and backgrounds, and they bring with them their own stories of struggles and triumphs," said Ruth Dorochoff, Chicago District Director for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). "We are privileged to recognize their journeys to this country, and celebrate their new citizenship in this extraordinary setting."
In Fiscal Year 2008, USCIS naturalized more than a million new citizens nationwide.
HIAS Chicago Director David Zverow said his organization has helped more than 30,000 refugees and immigrants in the past 15 years.
To the planners of the event, it made sense that Skokie's museum, open now for seven months, should be designated as a venue for the on-the-road naturalization ceremony.
"We're proud to host you and we're proud to be your very first stop along the remarkable journey of being new citizens and going forth in our great land," IHMEC Executive Director Rick Hirschhaut said. "This is an extraordinary moment. I firmly believe that every American should witness a naturalization ceremony at least once in their lifetime."
Following WWII, more than 80,000 Holocaust survivors immigrated to the United States. Looking to resume their interrupted lives, many of them traveled to Chicago with little money and family to begin the process of starting over in a new country.
IHMEC Board President Sam Harris was one of those people. The keynote speaker Thursday, Harris was a child when in 1947 he arrived in the United States aboard the ship Ernie Pyle. Much of his family had perished in the Holocaust.
Harris said he knew three English words when he arrived: "yes," "no" and "Coca-Cola."
"My goal was to become an American kid," he said. And 62 years later, he said, he has fulfilled the goals of that young boy.
"Everything has been possible in America," Harris said. "My dreams have come true. And may your dreams come true, too."