NEW YORK — Briam Saiti was oblivious when a politician urged him and the other new citizens at a recent swearing-in to exercise their new rights to vote wisely. As he pledged allegiance to the American flag, his hand over his heart, emotions flooded over him - sadness at losing part of himself, memories of the tortuous journey to America, years of working 48 hours in a row.
And, overriding everything, the fresh, delectable feeling of freedom at last.
"I feel very sad: My motherland is my motherland," says Mr. Saiti, a Muslim who fled Serb oppression in Kosovo, a region of Serbia inhabited mostly by ethnic Albanians like himself.
"But I did not have citizenship in Kosovo, so what did I lose?" he's quick to add. "At last, I belong over here."
These mixed emotions no doubt were shared by many of the 3,000 immigrants from more than 100 countries who became naturalized US citizens that day at the Jacob Javits Center in Manhattan.
Freedom is particularly dear to somebody like Saiti, who came of age under the grip of Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic. The repression of ethnic Albanians rose in the 1980s, when the Serbian government set up a police state in Kosovo, barring Albanians from Kosovo's universities and schools, dismissing them from their jobs, harassing them. A recent report by the US State Department confirms police repression of the Albanians - including torture, beatings, arbitrary arrests, and imprisonment of political dissidents.
"What kind of government would do to their people what [the former] Yugoslavia did to Kosovo?" Saiti says. "We wanted to be free like any human beings, but we were being handcuffed."
Saiti decided to flee to America amid massive antigovernment demonstrations in Kosovo. He spoke no English. "I came for freedom and for a future for my son," Saiti says. The year was 1984. Because he was unable to get a visa, he felt he had no choice but to rely on a "smuggler" who used the Mexican route to bring in the illegals, and to whom he agreed to pay $12,000. Later he was granted legal status.
Today, flanked by Zebibe, his wife, and Bujar, his son, Saiti was being congratulated by politicians at the Javits Center. Immigrants are eligible for US citizenship after having been permanent legal residents - having held a "green card" - for at least five years.
"When I came in America, I had zero money," he says. "But once I was in America, things were different. I was free."
It is work that fills up the most vivid memories of Saiti's first years in New York City. He juggled three jobs, often working 48 hours straight to repay his debt to the "smuggler." He worked as everything from a busboy to a construction worker. All the while, he was also superintendent at a Brooklyn apartment building. Often, he'd lie about his age to get a job.
"I worked like a horse," Saiti says. "Restaurant jobs, cleaning, construction, driving, plumbing - you name it. The main thing was that I had to work to support my family."
But after years of exhausting work, Saiti has "made it." The resident manager of an upscale Manhattan building, he says he believes in the American dream. But all the same, while he was pledging allegiance to the US flag, his joy was tempered by the memories of his homeland.
"Every day you watch the news, you hear what's going on [at home], you wait for things to get better," he says.
He struggled for his freedom, it's true, and it is precious to him, he says. But he cannot forget his parents and brother still living in Kosovo.