Twenty-two new Americans from 21 different nations were the stars of the show when they took the oath of allegiance and became United States citizens Tuesday morning.
But the new citizens got something more than their naturalization papers.
They also got a history lesson, with a re-enactment of Theodore Roosevelt’s 1901 inauguration on the original historic site, followed by the recitation of the 44 U.S. presidents by a Clarence fifth-grader who’s been an American citizen all 11 of his years.
Declan Hurley, dressed in patriotic colors, reeled off all 44 U.S. presidents in order, first and last names.
“He gets better at it all the time,” Chief U.S. District Judge William M. Skretny said in introducing him. “What throws him off is when they add another president.”
It’s too bad that the 22 new citizens didn’t get to hear Declan explain later what it means to be an American.
“I love the United States,” he said. “It’s a great country to live in. First of all, we do not have any dictator who controls every aspect of your life. You are free to do whatever you want. And second, we have 50 states. They’re all different places to go, in one country.”
Declan started doing his presidential recitation after a visit to Washington, D.C., with his parents, Jennifer and Peter, at age 5. Every night, before going to bed, he’d learn a new president, and he had memorized the list before his sixth birthday.
Later, on a White House tour at age 6, he said he wanted to be the first deaf president. Now he wants to be a movie director.
“I used to think when I was a little kid that presidents were in charge of everything,” he said. “Now, the more I read about, it’s Congress that’s in charge and settles things. They veto everything.”
Declan clearly loved sharing this country’s historical roots with his new fellow citizens.
What would he like to say to them?
“Good job, coming all the way here,” he replied. “I’m proud of you. It was great seeing so many people of different nationalities.”
The new Americans came from all over, from China and Cuba, from Ethiopia and El Salvador, and from Taiwan and Turkey. Only Canada was represented twice among the new citizens.
Each has a story, perhaps united by what Skretny told them, that what distinguishes America is its dedication to human rights. Their race, their color, their country of origin – none of that matters.
“We are all equal under the Bill of Rights and the Constitution of the United States,” the judge told them.
All worked hard to become U.S. citizens, Skretny said, and it was obvious from several brief interviews that everyone has a distinctive past and lofty goals:
• Radna Khaiber, 31, from Afghanistan, has a dream to open her own restaurant.
Back in Afghanistan, the Taliban considered her family infidels, because they helped Americans, according to Khaiber’s Buffalo neighbor, Kathy Vujakovich. Khaiber’s father believed in America and wanted his children to come here.
“Today, I’m so happy,” Khaiber said. “My heart is too much happy.”
• Mairis Batista, 39, explained why she came here from the Dominican Republic.
“To have a better life, to try something different, to have a better opportunity,” she said.
• And Zarina Shekenova, 36, grew up as a happy child in Kazakhstan and had a good career as a medical doctor there. Even after coming to Buffalo five years ago, she didn’t plan on seeking U.S. citizenship, at least for 10 years.
But she was swayed by what she called America’s “most kind people.”
“Whenever I asked for help, I got it in full,” she added.
Many of these new Americans have come a long way with their English, while others still struggle. So the true appreciation of American history will come later, and they probably wouldn’t have understood Declan when he was asked for his favorite president.
“Probably Lincoln or Kennedy,” he replied. “Lincoln, because he helped the deaf [chartering Gallaudet University] and Kennedy, because he stopped the Cuban Missile Crisis and saved millions of lives.”