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U.S. Naturalization Ceremony Held At Putney's Grammar School As Kids Study Immigration

Twenty Vermont residents from 15 foreign countries became U.S. citizens this week at a naturalization ceremony held at The Grammar School in Putney.The school is spending a full year studying immigration and migration, and the ceremony gave the students a front row seat to the contentious immigration debate that's playing out across the country.

The Grammar School is a private pre-K-through-eighth-grade school in southern Vermont. Months before this naturalization ceremony was scheduled, the faculty decided to spend this school year studying immigration and diversity.

The sixth grade class concentrated on the Syrian refugee issue in Rutland, and the controversial plan gave the kids more than enough to study.

Student Olivia Burns says it was hard to watch the refugee resettlement project grind to a halt.

"I think we can do better," she says. "There is a lot of racism. And people don't get equal rights because of where they're from, or if they look different. It's still happening. Some people are just not doing anything to help that, and I think we can do more."

The past seven months turned out to be a pretty intense time to study immigration.

Credit Howard Weiss-Tisman / VPR
Olivia Burns is a sixth-grade student at The Grammar School in Putney. The school's students have spent this school year studying immigration and diversity.

The kids came back to school in September in the middle of the ugly presidential campaign.

Then Donald Trump was elected president, with talk of building a wall on the Mexican border. He later imposed a travel ban from seven predominately Muslim countries. And then the plan to settle Syrian refugees in Rutland fell apart.

The Honorable Colleen Brown is a federal judge from Middlebury, and her daughter used to work at The Grammar School. She suggested that the naturalization ceremony be held at the school.

Credit Howard Weiss-Tisman / VPR
Judge Colleen Brown presides over the U.S. naturalization ceremony in Putney.

William Rodriguez was one of the applicants who took the Oath of Allegiance. Rodriguez is a musician from Cuba. In 2010, while on tour in the United States, he made the decision not to return home.

He now lives in Brattleboro, and on Thursday at The Grammar School, he became a U.S. citizen.

"This is a big dream for most people in Cuba, because all of the Cuban history," Rodrigueaz says. "I feel like I've been born again for all of the opportunity I now have with a second country and a second language. I feel so proud of America and proud of myself too."

Hibba Rehman is an Ahmadi Muslim, one of the religious minorities in Pakistan.

Rehman now lives in South Burlington and she was granted asylum in this country six years ago after about 100 members of her religion were killed in a massacre at two mosques.

For her, the ceremony was an emotional end to a very long journey.

"I feel that people in this country are very welcoming," she says, breaking down in tears. "The people in this country are friendly. I can practice what I believe in. I'm happy that nobody's going to assess me on my faith ... It's a feeling of freedom."

The kids at the Grammar School will process this week's ceremony and continue their studies on immigration and what it means to be an American.

Credit Howard Weiss-Tisman / VPR
Twenty Vermonters from 15 countries took the Oath of Allegiance at the U.S. naturalization ceremony at The Grammar School.

And our national conversation will go on as well.

Zoe Bollyn is 12, and she's in the sixth grade class. She says there's room in this country for the 20 Vermonters who became citizens this week, and a whole lot more.

"It is our duty as a country to help anyone who needs help, even if they're not Americans yet, or never will be American," Bollyn says. "And with all the stuff we have, we might as well share it. We have so much."

Howard Weiss-Tisman is Vermont Public’s southern Vermont reporter, but sometimes the story takes him to other parts of the state. 
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