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International Institute of Buffalo revives New Citizens Day to celebrate immigrants

Bishnu Prasad Adhikari arrived in Buffalo as a refugee in 2009, but his new life didn’t commence until last Thursday, when he became a U.S. citizen.

“I’m very excited; I have an identity now,” he said. “When you’re a refugee, you don’t belong anywhere. But as an American, I can vote, participate in civic groups and help my people. This is a very good thing.”

Adhikari, an ethnic Nepali from Bhutan, joined about a dozen other recently minted U.S. citizens Sunday for the International Institute of Buffalo’s inaugural New Citizens Day. The event, which featured live music, celebrated immigrants and refugees who became naturalized citizens within the past 10 years, highlighting their accomplishments and contributions to the area.

Mayor Byron W. Brown praised immigrants and refugees for bringing diversity, creativity and work ethic to the city.

“You make the city more vibrant,” Brown said.

The event was also informational, with elected officials, including Erie County Clerk Chris Jacobs, filling them in on the process to apply for a driver’s license.

“We want to make sure you have everything you need, whether you’re a native born or naturalized citizen, to be successful,” said Eva Hassett, executive director of the International Institute. Hassett said it’s been discovered that new citizens aren’t exercising their right to vote, so among other things, the event aimed to get them civically involved.

“It’s a way to begin dialogue about the importance of civic engagement – engaging in the democracy and the community,” she said.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Hugh B. Scott, who has sworn in more than 150 new citizens in 20 years, said voting is both a right and obligation. Scott’s great-grandfather, who was born a slave in Alabama, said he and fellow slaves were courageous fighters for civil rights.

“He and others were brave and made a lot of sacrifices for us to enjoy the rights we have today.”

Other new citizens came from Brazil, Bhutan, Burma and Canada.

Music was provided by the HyNotes Quartet. The event featured stations with different activities that allowed the new citizens to share their new and old lives.

“American Because” asked them to share reasons they became American. They marked their favorite place in Western New York on a map in the “Buffalo Favorite” activity. During “Where I’m From,” they pinpointed their home city and native country. And at the “What it means to be American” video station, native-born and naturalized citizens were encouraged to share their thoughts on what it means to be an American for a video project.

Hassett said the International Institute used to hold a New Citizens Day in the 1930s and decided to revive it as the organization approaches its centennial in 2018. She added that it will become an annual event.

Adhikari, who lived in a refugee camp in Nepal for 14 months after fleeing persecution in his homeland, spoke during the event.

“I understand the value of getting a new start, a new life,” he said. “I’m no longer a refugee; I’m American now. It’s a new life for me.”

email: esapong@buffnews.com