On an overcast Thursday morning in mid-May, U.S. Magistrate Judge Hugh B. Scott stood before a packed courtroom talking about his great grandfather, a slave in Alabama, and why events like the one that day mean so much to him.
His audience, 58 new U.S. citizens from 30 different countries, listened as the judge spoke of opportunity, dignity and human respect, and how one of our country’s greatest strengths is its diversity.
“You come to these shores with the knowledge that even with some flaws, this is the greatest country in the world,” Scott told them.
Near the back of the courtroom, Win Han smiled, nodded and clapped silently as Scott talked about his new home as a land of equality and independence. Already a citizen – Win had gone through a similar naturalization ceremony a few weeks earlier – he was there to see his younger sister, Neria Sein, join the fold.
On this day, they were far, far away from their native Burma and, in many ways, the ceremony marked the end of a journey that began when they were barely into their teens, refugees forced to leave the country. They followed their older sister to Buffalo, unable to speak a word of English but eager to learn.
“All we knew was a,b,c,d,” Win recalled.
Seven years later, Win, now 20, watched, a look of genuine happiness on his face, as his sister, dressed in a traditional and colorful Burmese dress, walked to the front of the courtroom to receive her Certificate of Citizenship and have her picture taken with Scott.
Win, still clapping, couldn’t have been more proud.
“I was just enjoying the moment,” he said later.
In many ways, Neria’s induction into citizenship is no different than hundreds of other naturalization ceremonies across the country. And yet, it serves as a reminder that there are people in places like Burma, Bhutan and Somalia who still dream of becoming Americans.
Even more important, perhaps, it tells us that, at a time when immigration is Topic A in Washington D.C., there are people who still gain their citizenship the old-fashioned way.
“We know that, if we work hard, we’ll get to a place we want to be,” Neria said.
Immigrants ‘made’ U.S.
But they are empathetic, too. They read and hear about the millions of undocumented immigrants in the country and, despite the differences in their paths, see them as kindred spirits of sorts, connected by their desire for freedom and opportunity.
“This country was made from immigrants,” Win said.
As refugees, Win and Neria had little choice but to leave Mawlamyia, a riverfront city slightly larger than Buffalo in the southeast part of Burma.
Their father, a fisherman, and their mother, a store owner, had made a good life for their family, but over time grew frustrated with the lack of educational opportunities for their children.
The country, governed by a military junta until 2011, was known for ethnic turmoil, human rights abuses and government crackdowns on dissent. Even now, under a new civilian president, the military remains a powerful presence in the country.
One by one, family members starting fleeing to the United States. Their older sister arrived first, about 10 years ago, settled in Buffalo and began paving the way for some of her siblings. To a person, they came looking for a chance to learn, to better themselves.
“It’s always been my dream to have a good education,” said Neria, 19, now a sophomore at Houghton College. “I had about a one in 10 chance in Burma. Here, it’s a nine in 10 chance.”
In Burma, Neria says, most of the high schools are private institutions. Here, she went to school for free.
“In Burma, everything is controlled,” she said.
New American dream
For Win, now a junior at SUNY Buffalo State, his years in Buffalo have transformed him into an English-speaking American eager to make his mark in the global world of fashion. And like his sister, he wants to continue what they started seven years ago and travel the rest of the world.
“I want to meet new people and enjoy new experiences,” he said.
Immigration experts say Win and Neria are, in many ways, typical of the refugees settling here. First and foremost, they came looking for a better life and with a deep-seated commitment to hard work and education as the means to get there.
They also came at the urging of a family member already here, the latest additions to a Burmese community in Buffalo that is growing. And like many refugees, they arrived here as young kids.
“They have overcome a lot,” said Mike McQuade, resources coordinator at the International Institute in Buffalo. “And yet, they have acclimated quickly.”
At naturalization ceremonies likes the one in Buffalo, it’s not uncommon to hear judges talk about how much they appreciate the event. They will tell you of the joy they see in the people standing before them and the sense they get that these are folks who want nothing more than to become an American.
A day for happiness
Scott, who smiled throughout the ceremony in May, offered to be photographed with each of the 58 new citizens and seemed to revel in the celebration around him.
“Ladies and gentleman, you are being presented with a great opportunity,” he told them. “You now have a chance to create a good life for you and your families.”
With every name called came applause and a few moments in the spotlight for a new citizen from Iraq, El Salvador or Yemen. Family members snapped photos, wiping away a tear or hugging a loved one.
It was, as Scott suggested, not your typical day in federal court. It was a day for happiness, not despair, and for thanks, not regrets. And after at least five years of working and waiting for this day, it’s hard to imagine anyone of the 58 people in that courtroom not realizing the opportunity before them.
Certainly, Win and Neria realize it. They also realize there are others still waiting in Burma and elsewhere for the same opportunity. Whether it’s refugees working through the naturalization process or undocumented immigrants working underground, they understand the desire to come here.
“I sympathize with them,” said Neria. “They also have dreams.”
With more interest than most, they have watched the off-again, on-again debate over immigration reform and wonder why Congress can’t find a solution to the dilemma swirling around millions of undocumented residents.
It’s a debate that begs several questions: Should the country provide a path to legal status? Or are its doors already too open?
Neria doesn’t think the process for coming here should be easy, but she also knows there are immigrants who deserve to be here and will never have the same chance she had.
In her eyes, one of the few distinctions between her journey and the one taken by others is that she had an opportunity to do it her way. She and Win had a chance to go through the traditional naturalization process, and do not judge anyone who takes a different path.
“I feel like they’re in a cage,” Win said.
Love the snow, not the food
Despite their newfound citizenship, it’s hard to imagine Win and Neria as newcomers. Buffalo has been their home for nearly seven years and they already have strong opinions on what they like and don’t like about their new home.
The snow? Win loves it. Neria, not so much.
“I never get tired of it,” Win said. “And I love playing in it.”
The food? Well, that’s something else entirely.
“I’m sorry to say, but it’s all fat,” Win said.
Neria says they love the people and sense of community in Buffalo, and she’s quick to note their English is much improved. Win even works part-time as a translator.
After talking with them, you walk away convinced they are, in many respects, as much American as they are Burmese.
They still talk about their life in Burma and what they left behind, including some of their siblings, who chose to stay. But there’s no sense of regret over the choices they made. To the contrary, they seem most excited when talking about the future.
Win is destined for a career in fashion merchandising and Neria wants to one day work for the United Nations. She wants to travel the world and help those less fortunate than her, a trait she acknowledges is rooted in her Burmese upbringing.
“I want to be a missionary,” she said. And where might she end up? “My destination,” she said, “is helping others.”