TERRE HAUTE —
As the oldest person to become a U.S. citizen Thursday during a naturalization ceremony, 72-year-old Ilya Tolpygin received a flag that had flown over the U.S. Capitol.
“This is a beautiful country. The best one in the world,” said Tolpygin, a native of Russia. He spoke after the ceremony with the help of his stepdaughter, Yelena Rashkin, who translated.
Tolpygin, who came to the United States in 1997, had a hard life in Russia, growing up as his homeland recovered from the devastation of World War II.
He’s grateful for the freedoms he enjoys here and is looking forward to exercising his right to vote. He also has a job here as a driver for a small company, Rashkin said.
“I love this country. I love the people,” said Tolpygin, who now lives in Carmel. “By God’s mercy and with his blessing, I have had a chance to live here.”
Tolpygin’s was just one of several touching stories from the naturalization ceremony, which took place Thursday afternoon in the former federal courtroom at Indiana State University’s Federal Hall.
Fifty-five people from 24 countries became U.S. citizens as Federal Magistrate Craig McKee presided. “You are the newest members of our great nation,” he told them.
He urged them to register to vote — and exercise their right to vote — and also emphasized the importance of jury duty, if they have that opportunity.
The former courtroom was packed, not only with those who became U.S. citizens, but also their families and friends.
Those who took the oath of citizenship came from such countries as Russia, Israel, Cuba, Philippines, Thailand, Jordan and Turkey. “It literally was a collection of people from all over the world. And they live here” in the southern two-thirds of Indiana, McKee said after the ceremony.
Before the event started, the 55 future U.S. citizens sat quietly, solemnly and hopefully in the imposing former courtroom. Before them, on the wall, was a mural depicting the signing of the Magna Carta.
The silence was broken only by a stroller moving back and forth, or by the rustling of papers.
“They are serious,” McKee said. “You see in their eyes a sense of purpose, a sense of pride. And they will be our best citizens. They will vote.”
Some of them have lived in places where they don’t have an opportunity to vote, he said.
Thursday’s naturalization ceremony marked McKee’s third in Terre Haute; he’s also presided over a few in Indianapolis. It’s something he enjoys.
For those born in the United States and who are able to observe the ceremony, he hopes it rekindles a sense of both the opportunities and obligations of citizenship.
“I think it makes the natural-born citizens grateful and humble,” he said.
The youngest person to become a U.S. citizen Thursday, 21-year-old Srishti Laller, led the others in the Pledge of Allegiance.
After the ceremony, she talked about her new U.S. citizenship.
“It feels really awesome. It’s an outstanding feeling that you can’t describe. You’re finally a part of the United States,” she said. “There is so much to explore and more opportunities. You feel like you are part of America now.”
She came to this country from India in 2007 and joined family members already living here. “Finally we are together,” she said. She lives in Greenwood and is a college student, studying to be a nurse.
Also taking the oath of citizenship was Hila Karmazyn, 24, a native of Israel. “It feels great. It feels like a new beginning,” she said.
She came to the U.S. when she was 15; her father, a doctor, had a job opportunity here. Her dad and mom both are pursuing citizenship as well. Karmazyn, who is engaged, is studying interior design.
Thlaawr Bawihrin of Burma has been in the U.S. since 1996, when he came to Indianapolis to study at the Christian Theological Seminary. He is a pastor who ministers to the Chin community, also from Burma.
“I’ve been here a long time. Today, I feel it’s my real home,” he said, as his wife took pictures of him. “I’m very happy,” said his wife, Dawtzi.
Sue Loughlin can be reached at 812-231-4235 or firstname.lastname@example.org.