Hailing from 15 nations, they boarded the Ticonderoga Monday under blazing late-summer sunshine for a solemn but festive ceremony with about 100 friends, family and onlookers. They left an hour later as newly minted United States citizens.
U.S. District Judge William K. Sessions III presided over the 20th naturalization ceremony held aboard Shelburne Museum’s iconic steamboat, administering the oath of allegiance to 18 new Americans.
Wooden deck chairs filled the aft Promenade Deck as the applicants for citizenship took their spots in the front rows before Sessions, who wore his black robe for the U.S. District Court proceeding, with the museum’s lawn and Lake Champlain for a backdrop.
Sessions noted the museum’s historic icons and pointed out that, with the exception of Native Americans, everyone in the United States has an immigrant story.
“All of us or our ancestors have made the same voyage,” he said. “Our doors are open to you and may they remain open to all that will follow.”
The candidates for citizenship came from 15 nations: Bhutan, Canada, Congo-Kinshasa, Germany, India, Indonesia, Jamaica, Moldova, Myanmar, Peru, Russia, Somalia, South Africa, Sri Lanka and Vietnam.
This ceremony was part of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services annual celebration of Constitution Day, Citizenship Day, and Constitution Week. Across the nation, at about 200 ceremonies much like the one in Shelburne, more than 30,000 people were expected to take the oath of citizenship this week.
Sessions spoke fondly of this part of his duties and of the significance of this moment in the lives of the new citizens.
“You are about to experience almost a magical transformation,” he said, noting that each candidate had a unique path to that day’s event.
Shelburne Museum’s finance director Berenice Sarafzade, herself a naturalized U.S. citizen from Mexico, spoke to the candidates from a very similar experience. She took her oath 14 years ago and said it was an honor to be part of the occasion on the Ticonderoga.
“Your backgrounds, your costumes, your languages, your contributions will enrich the lives of those around you,” she told the group. “I hope this is the beginning of a new journey for you.”
Sessions delivered remarks highlighting freedoms Americans enjoy and the accompanying responsibilities of citizenship.
He emphasized the importance of voting, saying “our right to vote is at risk each time you fail to vote” and likewise “our right to free speech is threatened whenever you do not speak out … against oppression and injustice.” He quoted Presidents Barak Obama and Franklin D. Roosevelt, along with Robert Kennedy: “Our strength is in the diversity of our people,” he said.
The group stood and recited the Oath of Allegiance together, renouncing loyalty to their home countries and pledging their new faith to the United States and the constitution. As they completed the oath, the Ticonderoga’s horn let out a long blast that was met with cheers and applause.
For 23-year-old Madina Mohamed, who was born in Somalia, the day marked an accomplishment and the start of what she hopes is a bright future. Her mother and 2-year-old daughter Warsan – which means “peace” – were by her side, marking a milestone for her having come to America at age 9 from refugee camps in Kenya.
After a short stay in Massachusetts, Mohamed’s family moved to Vermont where she said she is happy to be living in Winooski, married, and raising her daughter, who was born a citizen. “Vermont is a diverse place,” she said.
Mohamed navigated the citizenship application process with her mentor Linda M. Ayer, a retired teacher and employee from the Vermont Student Assistance Corporation, who befriended her when she was in eighth grade. Ayer said this step makes a huge difference in the life of an immigrant. “They don’t have to worry about being deported now,” she said.
Mohamed said she has worked as an interpreter at a local health center and hoped to continue her education and work after her second child is born. When asked whether current policies, rhetoric, and restrictions regarding immigration from the federal government had any impact on her leading up to the citizenship ceremony, Mohamed said: “I just tuned that out.”
In addition to several court officers, in attendance at the ceremony were representatives of Vermont’s congressional delegation along with officials from Immigration Services, the U.S. Marshal Service and U.S. Passport Agency, Vermont League of Women Voters, Daughters of the American Revolution, and an American Legion color guard.