Sentiment at naturalization ceremony in Stockbridge: 'This is my country now'

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STOCKBRIDGE — On a bright blue American morning, they packed the hall for love of country and were surrounded by an iconic painter's patriotic spirit.

"Welcome to my courtroom," said Judge Joan McMenemy, who presided over a naturalization ceremony at the Norman Rockwell Museum on Friday to administer the oath of allegiance to 20 new U.S. citizens.

"You deserve this beauty, this ceremony, this beautiful weather," McMenemy told the candidates and their families, all aglow in the hall where Rockwell's "Four Freedoms" collection typically hangs. The paintings are on an international tour, including a stay at museum in France until October as part of a commemoration of the D-Day invasion.

McMenemy, a first justice for Berkshire County Juvenile Court, joined local leaders, immigrant advocates and state lawmakers for a ceremony held by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which brings the naturalization ceremony to the museum every year. The event also was sponsored by the Berkshire Immigrant Center, as well as numerous local businesses.

Laurie Norton Moffatt, the museum's executive director, told the citizen candidates that they could register to vote after the ceremony at the reception held on the patio.

At the ceremony, earnestness was palpable during the Pledge of Allegiance. Tears flowed at the national anthem and "America the Beautiful," sung by Lina Orozco Gillion. And each new citizen drew roaring applause.

McMenemy said she is the grandchild of immigrants.

"We should all have the opportunity to live honestly," she said, speaking of the foundations of the country.

Televised congratulations from President Donald Trump also was met by zealous applause.

Afterward, state Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox, said that holding the ceremony at the museum gives it "poignancy."

"To see the looks on their faces, and of their families," he said, "hanging on and understanding every word of the Pledge of Allegiance and the songs — there's a lot that we take for granted."

And there's nothing like love to catapult someone to another continent.

For Ho Young Lee, 48, a trip from South Korea in 2004 to visit a cousin in Hampden County led him to his wife, Patricia Lee, whom he met while attending Springfield First Korean Church of the Nazarene.

"We married nine months later," said Patricia Lee, who occasionally helped her husband with his English. She is Korean-American.

The couple live in Westfield, where they work at Kisara Japanese & Korean Restaurant.

Ho said he feels relief, particularly because they have two children.

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"I feel great," he said.

"Finally, it's over," she said of his path to citizenship. "I've been pushing for it because it has to be done."

Love also found Ian Backman in the Berkshires after he came here from Cape Town, South Africa. The pharmacist came to work in Pittsfield on a visa sponsored by Rite Aid. He now works in Bennington, Vt., and lives in North Adams.

He met Domingo Goncalves in Williamstown during that time, and the two are now married.

Goncalves did not stop smiling during the ceremony. Both are relived and "elated," they said.

"I feel lighter," said Backman, 45, who came to the U.S. in 2008. "Being an immigrant is so much pressure. There's always this threat of deportation. My journey was relatively easy."

Backman, who also has volunteered teaching immigrants English, said he "can't wait to vote" — and work to "get out the vote."

"I feel rooted now," he said, beaming. "This is my country now."

For Edward Bonney, it's also about love. The Ghana native said now that he has citizenship, his two children can move from Ghana to live with him in Pittsfield.

He said that while he sometimes misses Ghana, he loves America. He says the two countries are incomparable, and that every place has its challenges.

"We don't have a perfect world," said Bonney, 53, a residential caregiver at Berkshire County Arc.

Victoria Yankey, also from Ghana, gained citizenship two years ago. She came to celebrate Bonney, and said it is hard to adequately describe the relief of becoming a U.S. citizen.

"Now, you're not looking over your shoulder anymore," she said of not always knowing what might have gotten her in trouble and threatened her candidacy for citizenship. "It can make you a little timid."

Bonney moved here after visiting some family members who had moved to Pittsfield.

"Pittsfield is a welcoming city," he said. "I liked what I was seeing."

Heather Bellow can be reached at hbellow@berkshireeagle.com or on Twitter @BE_hbellow and 413-329-6871.


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