In the midst of peace, war, new Americans take an oath
“We pray for peace.”
It is with a heavy but hopeful heart that Ganna (Anna) Leonchyk, along with 47 of her colleagues, raised her right hand and officially took the oath of allegiance as a new American citizen Thursday in U.S. District Court in Utica.
Leonchyk hails from Ukraine, a place she will always remember as her childhood home. Her brother and his family, along with cousins and other extended families, still live in the war-torn Slavic nation, which first came under attack by Russian forces on February 24.
The sustained attacks ordered by Russian President Vladimir Putin to take the country by force have reportedly killed at least 13,000 people and displaced 2.3 million citizens to date.
When asked about the impact of the conflict, Leonchyk said, “Peaceful people are dying.”
The young woman, who is looking forward to attending college, said she had mixed feelings about the US and world response to the war in her home country. She is originally from Rivne, which is about “4 hours” from Kyiv, she said.
“Here I am in a place where everything is peaceful, which is my home now, it’s so hard to see what’s going on,” Leonchyk said in Ukraine. “I can’t (directly) feel what they’re going through there, but it’s very scary.”
Seeing what is happening in Ukraine “makes me want to help people,” especially those like you who have come to America to seek a new life.
“We have to help those around us create a better place,” she said. “My brother and his family, my cousins, are still here and we try to support them as much as we can.”
Leonchyk said she and all Ukrainians are grateful to those around the world who oppose Russia’s actions and proud of how Ukraine has defended itself.
“It’s good to see how united and courageous Ukraine is,” Leonchyk said. “Even though it’s such a small country, people don’t give up. It’s sad and heartbreaking, but I think that unites Ukraine with all countries that stand for freedom and that will make us stronger.”
As for US and world involvement in the conflict, “I have mixed thoughts. I understand that countries “do not go to Ukraine because they do not want to start World War III,” Leonchyk said. “I understand why they (the US and other nations) are not going in with their military. But people are dying there, families are dying, peaceful people are even being killed in cars trying to escape. I understand why there isn’t more engagement, but at the same time people I know are dying. My heart wishes things could change.”
David N. Hurd, Judge for the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of New York, welcomed those eagerly awaiting to take their oath of allegiance to the represented nations at Thursday’s naturalization ceremony, paying particular attention to representing Ukraine.
Judge Hurd requested a special round of applause for Ukraine, some giving Leonchyk a standing ovation as she stood to be recognized. Other native countries honored at the ceremony included Burma, Ecuador, Colombia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Iraq, Jordan, Somalia, Vietnam, Armenia, Afghanistan, Bhutan and Yemen.
“This is a great day for all new citizens, but it is also a great day for the United States of America as you come to us as new citizens,” said Judge Hurd as he addressed the 48 new citizens and their family and friends turned.
Hurd pointed out that as American citizens they receive a number of rights such as freedom of speech, religion and assembly. But the most important thing they are all now committed to is the right to vote, he said.
“As of today, you are all entitled to vote,” Hurd said. “And you will never in your life be in a space like this where there is so much diversity.”
Judge Hurd’s opening remarks were joined by members of the New Hartford American Legion Post 1376 presenting the colors and singing the national anthem by the Firestorm Barbershop Quartet.
Guest speaker Rocco LaDuca, local journalist and co-host of the morning radio show Talk of the Town on 100.7 FM, expressed how emotional it was to be part of his first naturalization ceremony and part of the “conclusion of an important journey” for the new citizens. LaDuca said everyone should be recognized for having their own story about what it means to be an American.
LaDuca spoke about American freedoms, including one he cherished every day – freedom of the press. He spoke about the important role of journalism in making voices heard and holding governments accountable. He pointed out that in some countries people can be arrested simply for what he calls work.
LaDuca then got emotional as he recalled a recent conversation he had with a woman at the local coffee shop from Belarus when he asked her what it meant to be American.
“‘In America, you can be whatever you want,’ she said, which is a beautiful, simple idea,” LaDuca said. “But what she followed was just as important: ‘But you have to know what you want and have a plan for how to get it, she said.'”
Poe Hser Robin Htoo, a native of Burma representing the new citizens, also offered words of encouragement to those who joined him at the ceremony. Htoo, who, according to Judge Hurd, had spent 28 years in a refugee camp in Thailand and worked hard to learn enough English to get a job when he soon arrived in Utica in 2016, had never been a citizen of any country before Thursday.
“There are so many beautiful people here,” Htoo said. “So many people have helped me to be here today and to stay here. Bless all new citizens.”
After a performance and singing of “God Bless America,” Judge Hurd concluded the ceremony with a reading of first poet Amanda Gorman’s poem “The Miracle of Morning.”
“You are equal to every Native American citizen and I can only imagine what you went through to make it here today — to make it a ‘miracle tomorrow,'” Hurd told the crowd. “This nation is so much richer for each of you. Every single one of you is badly needed – your energy and your original ideas.”