In 2009, Natasha Naji arrived in the United States as a refugee.
On Friday, she became an American, along with 10 others at the Empire State Plaza. The Fourth of July naturalization ceremony was an early highlight of a celebration that included food, fun and fireworks for thousands at the complex.
“I am very happy,” she said, with her daughter, Noor Murad, 16, beaming beside her.
Naji is originally from Baghdad. In 2003, her husband sent her and her daughter to live with relatives in Jordan as Iraq began to fall apart. In 2006, her husband, who stayed behind to take care of his business, died.
When Naji and Noor arrived in Albany three years later, resettled by U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, it was a completely different world for them. Neither spoke fluent English and they had to piece together their lives in a foreign land, away from the people and memories they knew.
Zainab Chaudhry, a volunteer at the Iraqi Refugee Project whose parents had come from Pakistan, helped them get established in their new country. Chaudhry, an Albany native who learned Arabic in Syria from
2003 through 2007, helped Naji and Noor with understanding forms, applications and, most importantly, their new country. She would take them to appointments and be there when they needed help.
The first thing Chaudhry did when they arrived was help them find furniture for their apartment and to get them clothes for the upcoming winter. Noor still remembered the toy bunny that Chaudhry had bought for her when they first met.
On Friday, Chaudhry was on hand to see Naji take the oath of allegiance in front of the New York State Museum, with people sitting on the steps and cheering for them.
“She’s like my aunt now,” Noor said of Chaudhry, and hugged her.
The ceremony kicked off the annual New York State Celebration. Despite clouds overhead, people continued to gather at the Empire State Plaza, partaking in food and music, wearing their star-spangled shirts.
For Lisa Badger and her husband Wilson Martinez, it was their first time at the celebration — they moved to Schenectady from New Jersey in December. At the event, Badger wore an American bald eagle shirt and a pair of red, white and blue glasses. She also had an American flag sticking up from her hair.
Although she thought the weather could’ve been better, she enjoyed the event and was ready to watch the night’s fireworks show.
Smoke from the many food vendors and grills wafted through the crowd that kept growing behind her.
Kurt Schrader, who was with his wife, Karen, held a plate of chicken quesadilla. As far back as he can remember, probably since he was 5 or 6, Kurt has been attending the event.
The Schraders also are from Schenectady and now bring their two children, Aimee-Lynne, 2, and Isiah, 4, to enjoy the food and the music as well.
‘Principles live on’
Jorge I. Montalvo is the director of the New York State Office for New Americans, established in 2012 as a way to help immigrants integrate into the civic and economic life of the state. He was one of the speakers at the naturalization event that kicked off the day’s celebrations.
Montalvo, whose parents came from Ecuador, still remembers when he was about 11, waking up before school and helping his parents study for their citizenship tests.
Seeing the new citizens taking their oaths onstage — from countries that included Pakistan, Vietnam, Romania, Sri Lanka and China — reminded him that if people can work hard enough and remain focused, they too can achieve their goals in the U.S.
“Those principles continue to live on,” he said after the ceremony.
When Naji and Noor arrived in Albany they were scared, knowing nobody. Noor, through her school and friendships, was able to pick up English faster than her mother. Once she was more fluent in the language, they would sit together and look through the newspaper for job openings for her mother.
Chaudhry helped as well, but also knew that Noor took on the responsibility of being there for her mother, translating forms from Arabic to English. Noor also helped her mom prepare for the citizenship test as well. It was a lot for a person her age to take on, but she persevered.
“It’s wonderful to see her grow up into a beautiful young woman,” Chaudhry said of Noor, who now attends the Albany Leadership Charter High School for Girls and plans to be a pediatrician someday.
“I love working with kids and babies,” she said. “But not teenagers” she clarified, laughing.
After the ceremony, the three stood to the side of the stage. By then, the crowd had grown, and most of the their attention had turned to eating and enjoying the music — and, of course, waiting for the fireworks.
Naji now works as a housekeeper at a Holiday Inn in downtown Albany. Her knees have been an issue for her over the years. She’s had surgery recently on her foot and is taking a month off work to recover. She’s learned a decent amount of English since living in Albany, but Noor was still a bit worried about her mother being able to pass the test.
Despite the concerns, she worked with her mother, helping with the bigger words and translating them.
Naji, while sitting down and listening to her daughter talk about the experience, didn’t say a word.
“You have to step up and be confident in what you do and about what you’re saying,” said Noor about what she learned while living in the U.S.
And about her mother passing her tests and becoming a citizen, it was a huge joy.
“It’s an honor to see her accomplish something she really wanted,” Noor said.
Her mother smiled as she listened to her daughter speak.