NEW HAVEN — John Ben Modi stood solemnly in a neatly pressed gray suit, eyes closed, his right hand raised.
The Hon. Judge John M. Conroy, robed and bespectacled, read from a piece of paper on the podium in front of him.
“I hereby declare, on oath, that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty.”
Modi repeated the words.
“…That I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic,” the judge continued.
Modi again repeated the judge’s words. Twenty others surrounded him, right hands raised — a man in an argyle sweater, a woman in a leopard-patterned blouse, two sisters in matching pink hijabs. They all recited the oath in an official U.S. government ceremony at the New Haven Town Hall on Monday afternoon.
In this bucolic setting Modi was a world away from his former life. He fled Sudan a decade ago to escape a civil war that claimed the lives of more than a million of his countrymen.
Some of the others have similar stories — of civil strife, of economic hardship. They came from disparate backgrounds, were born of different means and hail from the furthest regions of the globe. Yet they assembled in New Haven Monday afternoon for the same reason.
When Judge Conroy asked the 21 to rise and affirm the oath, the group represented 14 nationalities. At its conclusion, they composed just one — all had renounced allegiance to the countries of their birth to become naturalized citizens of the United States.
More than 100 Beeman Elementary students, their parents and teachers bore witness to the event, held on an unseasonably warm spring afternoon as part of a school program to educate students about immigration and global issues.
Conroy, a magistrate judge for the U.S. District Court for the District Court of Vermont, presided over the naturalization ceremony.
The event had all the dressings of a patriotic celebration — American flags lined the walkway to the historic town hall, ribbons adorned the railings, and a giant version of Old Glory hung above the stage.
Veterans from the American Legion Post 19 in Bristol comprised the color guard, local Scouts led the Pledge of Allegiance, and Mount Abraham Union High School students sang “The Star Spangled Banner.”
The Beeman Elementary Chorus sang “These Green Mountains,” the state song, as well as Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land,” accompanied by the Snowflake Brass.
It would be remiss not to mention the cake, which was festooned in red, white and blue with the aid of vanilla frosting, blueberries and raspberries.
BULAND CHOWDHURY, A native of Bangladesh, takes the Oath of Allegiance
Four of the new Americans came from Somalia, three from Canada and two each from China and Kenya. The others hailed from Uzbekistan, Bangladesh, Russia, Iraq, South Sudan, the Philippines, Italy, Jamaica, Syria and the United Kingdom.
There are few categories into which all these new Americans would fit. They come from diverse socioeconomic, educational and religious backgrounds. Some faced no option but to flee their native countries, while others simply sought greater economic opportunity here. They currently reside in various towns around Vermont.
When Modi fled Sudan, the Second Sudanese Civil War had raged for 21 years. Civilian casualty estimates from that war range from 1 million to 2 million, while around 4 million people are estimated to have been displaced by the conflict.
Now, Modi lives in Burlington and works as a cab driver. He said he hopes his new citizenship will enable him to provide a better life for his young children, who live with him.
“My biggest objective is to get out in the country and get an education, so I can help my family better,” Modi said.
In 2011, his native South Sudan seceded from the rest of the country to become the world’s newest nation.
Modi said he welcomed secession, and hopes it will prevent future strife in the region.
“I supported it, so we can be independent to ourselves,” Modi said. “Right now, we have some conflicts still going on, but I look at them as minor ones.”
Rayon Adane Watson emigrated from Jamaica nine years ago, though he still retains a hint of his native land’s colorful accent. Tall and broad-shouldered, the 27-year-old works in highway construction in Bennington.
Watson said what many of his fellow new Americans did — that he came to the United States in search of a fresh start.
“It’s the land of the free, the land of opportunity,” Watson said. “I just wanted to have a better life.”
Buland Chowdhury left Bangladesh for the United States 27 years ago. Now 45, Chowdhury came to attend Ramapo College, and then pursued his master’s degree at Cleveland State University.
Chowdhury now lives in Williston and works for Oracle Corp., a giant computer hardware and software company. He said he was proud to finally become an American citizen.
“It’s a wonderful country, and the biggest things I like are the freedom and the democracy,” Chowdhury said. “The way people are being treated here is different than any other place.”
Conroy, one of five judges in Vermont who preside over about a dozen naturalization proceedings each year, described welcoming these new citizens as one of the best parts of his job.
“It’s an absolute joy to see people come up to get their certificates of citizenship with tears streaming down their face,” Conroy said. “When you see that, it’s a reminder of what a difficult path to get here.”
Conroy said that too often these new citizens come to the United States to escape persecution and civil war. This ceremony was no different — the nationalities present included countries that are familiar to many Americans through evening news broadcasts — Syria, Somalia, Iraq, South Sudan.
As an official proceeding of the federal judiciary, both a court clerk and U.S. marshal are required to be present during naturalization ceremonies. Marshal Insup Shin said naturalization ceremonies are especially important to him, as he was born in South Korea and, like the citizens naturalized Monday, immigrated to the United States.
“It’s a joyous experience; I myself was a naturalized citizen that went through this 24 years ago,” Shin said. “Looking at it from the other side is interesting.”
RAYON WATSON SHAKES hands with Magistrate Judge John Conroy after officially becoming a citizen of the United States.
Beeman Elementary Principal Kristine Evarts said exposing her students to events like the naturalization ceremony, the third held in New Haven in recent years, broadens their worldview.
“This is extremely important for the students, even if they’re not quite sure where it’s all coming from,” Evarts said. “I think the more they’re introduced to ceremonies like this, the more they’ll take away from their studies.”
Evarts said students researched the native countries of the new Americans and wrote reports on the topic.
Teacher Annette Carter said exposing students to events like these connects learning to the real world.
“We do a lot of studies beforehand on civics, about how you become an American citizen,” Carter said. “To actually watch real people be part of a historic day, I don’t think there’s anything quite like it.”
As part of the curriculum, Carter said she also has her students take the citizenship test, a written exam on the history, government and culture of the United States that applicants for citizenship must pass.
Carter said some of her students were surprised to learn that the new citizens on Monday came from so many different parts of the world.
“I think they’re shocked to hear,” Carter said. “They can’t find some of these countries on the map.”
To wrap up the unit, Carter said her students wrote letters to the new Americans, asking them to share with the class their story of how they came to America. But what is paramount, Carter said, is that students grasp the importance of citizenship.
“Most of all, it’s celebrating what being an American is about,” Carter said.