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Different backgrounds, similar dreams: 26 swear allegiance to the U.S.

They have little in common.

One is a construction worker. Another wants to be a mental-health counselor. And one is a professional hockey broadcaster and former Buffalo Sabre.

The 26 Buffalo area residents sworn in as U.S. citizens Tuesday morning have vastly different stories. They come from war-torn lands, from totalitarian regimes, even from democratic Western countries. Their former homelands include Bangladesh and Burma, Iran and Iraq, Canada, Mexico and Italy.

But at 10:33 a.m. Tuesday, all 26 raised their right hands, recited the same 140-word Oath of Allegiance in unison and later expressed the thrill or relief of becoming U.S. citizens.

"I’m full of joy,” said Margarita Johnson, 36,  who came to the Buffalo area from Ukraine two years ago. “It’s another chapter in my life. I was waiting for this day to come, and now it’s here.”

“Everything today is finally real,” added 24-year-old Iris Lin, who came here from China in 2010. “I worked so hard these past few years.”

Six new citizens interviewed for this story cited several reasons for becoming Americans, most related to the freedoms, the assurance that they won’t be deported and the ability to vote, travel and speak their minds.

Margarita Johnson, formerly of Ukraine, takes the oath of allegiance to become a U.S. citizen during a naturalization ceremony at the Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural National Historic Site on Feb. 21. Click on the photo to see more images from the ceremony. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

Sergey Aponchuk, 22, a former Ukrainian, came to Buffalo in 2005 to join family members here.

“It feels good, because now my opinion matters, and I can do something about it,” he said. “I can vote. I can put my word out there too. And it makes me feel safer. They’re not going to send me back to Ukraine for some reason.”

The reporters and TV cameras attending the hour-long ceremony in the Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural National Historic Site focused their bright lights on Martin G. Biron, better known as Marty Biron, the former Sabres goalie, now a talk-show host, announcer and goaltending guru.

Biron didn’t disappoint, telling about his joy at being a U.S. citizen, now able to vote and be a deciding factor in elections, as a model for his four children.

[GALLERY: Twenty-six become U.S. citizens]

But when pressed on the point, Biron marveled at the people who raised their right hands along with him.

“There’s an appreciation for every story,” he said. “Luckily for me, sports paved the way, and I decided to stay here.”

A Quebec native, he came to the states to play for the Rochester Americans in 1997 and then with the Buffalo Sabres starting in 1999, as part of a 17-year pro career. So the 39-year-old Biron has spent half his life in America.

“When I came in this morning ... you looked around and you saw families with their loved ones, and you saw their pride and joy at the process. You looked around, and that’s when it sank in. I don’t know what everybody’s story is. I’m intrigued to know how they got here, what their story is."

“I think the beauty of it is knowing that we’re all different,” he added. “That’s what makes this ceremony great. Everyone’s coming from a different background. Everybody has their own personal touch that they can add to the community.”

Former Buffalo Sabres goalie Martin Biron, center, originally of Canada, takes the oath of allegiance to become a U.S. citizen. At left is Sergey Aponchuk of Ukraine; Mehdi Poursoltani of Iran is at right. Click on the photo to see more images from the ceremony. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

This was not a day for political differences, but several of the new citizens aired their views, especially on the proposed travel ban targeting immigrants from seven predominantly Muslim nations. And not everyone was strongly opposed to it.

“It burdens my heart that they’ve banned the travel,” Sue Meh, 54, from Burma, said through an interpreter, her daughter Beh. “I don’t know how to explain it. It just hurts.”

But Aponchuk, from Ukraine, had a mixed view.

“I’m not like a fan of the ban, but they should do more investigation of the people with a bad background,” he said. “If you did something bad in the country where you came from, they should at least keep an eye on you.”

Johnson, also from the Ukraine, had harsh words for the situation there.

“I think it’s despicable what’s going on in Russia, what Russia does to Ukraine,” she said. “It’s hard to believe that in the 21st century, one country can interfere with the political system and wholeness of another independent country.”

The emphasis Tuesday, though, was on the endless possibilities of U.S. citizenship for these two dozen people.

Mahad Warsame, originally from Somalia, takes the oath of allegiance to become a U.S. citizen.
(Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

Magistrate Judge Leslie G. Foschio, the ceremony’s presiding judge, told the new citizens a familiar story about the  President Harry S Truman. Shortly before leaving the presidency in January 1953, he was asked about leaving the highest office in the land.

“I’m going to assume the highest office in the land, that of citizen,” Foschio quoted Truman as replying.

Both Foschio and Stanton H. Hudson Jr., executive director of the Roosevelt site, urged the new citizens to engage in community life. That keeps people from feeling distant from the centers of power and helps them appreciate how they can influence change, Hudson said.

“Perhaps most importantly, we gain an appreciation for the hard work of democracy, how to understand different points of view and forge consensus behind a course of action in our complex, busy, and diverse society,” he added.

Speakers pointed to the inspiration they drew from the ceremony and the new Americans, with their varied paths to citizenship.

“It inspires you because it seems to connect to the founding of this country, dating back to the Pilgrims,” Foschio said.

As Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul added, “The ceremony washes away all the negative feelings going on out there. It’s like a birthday party. They’re being reborn as American citizens. There’s an incredible sense of optimism here.”

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