America’s newest pilgrims share stories, Thanksgiving plans
Forget turkey and all the trimmings. This Thanksgiving, these Americans are just hungry for the chance to start living their dream as new U.S. citizens.
They have withstood a barrage of brutal and unrelenting anti-immigrant rhetoric for more than a year:
Build the border wall.
Crack down on sanctuary cities.
Block migrants from certain Muslim-majority nations.
Amid it all, there have been protests and counterprotests, controversial executive orders and a flurry of lawsuits and last-minute court rulings.
The Daily News talked to a handful of modern-day pilgrims to gauge their thoughts on life in the U.S. amid the turbulent climate.
Here are their stories.
Dylan Akdeniz, 32, Turkey
Akdeniz has a whole lot to be thankful for, starting with his freedom.
The 32-year-old flight attendant no longer has to worry about facing possible persecution in his homeland for being gay.
“One of the reasons I moved to the United States is that people have more freedom to be themselves,” said Akdeniz, who hails from the southern coastal city of Adana. “Just being yourself and being gay. In my country, it’s not illegal, but it’s not accepted.”
Akdeniz lives in Tottenville, Staten Island, with his husband.
This year, he plans to reflect on his coveted new status.
“It was a sense of achievement. It was something I always wanted,” the jet-setting Akdeniz said of attaining citizenship. “It was somewhat emotional. I saw people on their knees crying when they got their passports.”
As a citizen, he was able to sponsor his South African partner, now husband, to come to the country. The couple married in June.
Akdeniz will be enjoying Thanksgiving with friends and colleagues in Staten Island, where he said he’s surrounded by a large community of gay flight attendants. He’s planning to treat them to a Turkish treat called ravani, a sponge cake in syrup.
“I know things are changing in this country for the worse,” he said, “but I’m just excited to be a part of the American society and the American people.”
Vida Owusu, 44, Ghana
Home health aide Vida Owusu, originally from Ghana, is thankful for her U.S. citizenship — and hopeful that she can bring her children over as well.
Over her 12 years in the U.S., Owusu has only once seen the four children she had to leave behind. Now an American citizen, the 44-year-old home health care aide hopes to bring them to the U.S. as permanent residents.
“If you’re not lazy, there are a lot of different jobs you can have. You have a paycheck,” Owusu said. “This country is better, better, better than Ghana. So they will live their lives here. That’s what I pray.”
Owusu arrived in the New York area from Ghana in 2005 seeking better job opportunities.
She had no trouble finding work but longed for her children. Her youngest, a girl, was just 5 at the time.
Her lone trip home was bittersweet — she flew back to Ghana for her sister’s funeral.
“I stayed here for 10 years before I saw them again, and I couldn’t believe the way they grew up,” she said of her kids. “When I met them in the airport, oh God, I was crying.”
Owusu studied for two years for the naturalization test. She wore her nicest dress — traditional white, with African embroidery — to her Oath of Allegiance ceremony in April. After a dozen years working round-the-clock as a live-in health care aide, she was finally an American.
“I had a friend go with me and take a picture,” she said. “I was so, so happy.”
The family’s primary breadwinner, Owusu sends a portion of her paycheck to her children and covers the rent of their apartment in Ghana’s capital city of Accra. Two of her children work in the computer industry, one has studied to be a nurse and one is a high school student.
Ever the hardworking caretaker, Owusu will spend Thanksgiving like most Thursdays, tending to the elderly couple she cares for in Teaneck, N.J.
Liam La Guerre, 27, Trinidad
For years, La Guerre had been procrastinating on submitting his citizen application. Then along came President Trump, and the 27-year-old reporter quickly got down to business.
The Trinidad native, who works for the Commercial Observer, became a citizen in August.
“I didn’t take it as a serious commitment until this year when I saw the news that there were executive orders signed that didn’t allow green card-holders from some countries to enter into the United States,” said La Guerre, who lives in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn.
“With the wave of a pen you wouldn’t be able to enter your home. That was a wakeup call.”
La Guerre arrived in the U.S. during grade school with his mom, who married an American. “Now that I’ve become a citizen, it’s a declarative statement that this is my home,” he said.
“The passport is a huge thing.”
On Thursday, La Guerre will be putting that document to use, celebrating Thanksgiving with his mom in Japan.“I still have the people I love with me, and it’s still a Thanksgiving for me.”
Richard Mazda, 62, Britain
“The Thanksgiving holiday is really the time when most Americans — and I’m now including myself in that — think of family,” said actor and theatre operator Richard Mazda, who immigrated to the United States from Britain.
After commuting from London to New York for four years to visit his wife, Lesley, who was working in the music business, the Brit made the leap across the Atlantic with his daughter Savannah, then 10, in 2004.
With a storied career in music behind him and an impressive acting resume — which boasts roles in “Saving Private Ryan” and the first Harry Potter movie — it was time to plant his feet firmly on American soil.
“I didn’t want to stay in London anymore,” he told the Daily News. “A couple of things happened that made it possible for me and my daughter to move to New York.”
Shortly after his arrival, Mazda struck a deal with some friendly bar owners in Queens who agreed to allot space for his acting troupe to rehearse there, at no cost, as long as they stuck around for pints afterward.
“That gave me a chance. That was my first experience of the American ‘can-do,’” he said. “America celebrates that spirit, still to this day.”
Within a year, Mazda was cast in his first off-Broadway production. “I didn’t really have a business plan, or a master plan. I just wanted to keep putting on plays and acting and directing.”
In 2007, he opened The Secret Theatre, in Long Island City, Queens — an intimate 99-seat venue tucked under the neighborhood’s elevated tracks, where budding actors and professionals practice and perform theater, dance, opera, and improv.
The dual-citizen said he often feels more proud of his American allegiance than his British citizenship.
“The Thanksgiving holiday is really the time when most Americans — and I’m now including myself in that — think of family,” he said. “Thanksgiving has a little more realness to it, which I really like.”
Mazda, who is a vegan, will be cooking for friends and family on Thursday. “I will adapt a typical British Christmas dinner — and I’ll make it without the bird.”
Voon Chew, 27, Malaysia
Voon Chew emigrated to the U.S. in the early 2000s.
The then-27-year-old came over on a sponsorship with Turkel Forman LLP and began working as a paralegal in Manhattan.
“My mom wanted me to further my education overseas,” he told The News. “It was a very exciting opportunity.”
Chew remembers the culture shock more than anything.
“One of the most jarring differences was the meal portions were enormous compared to what I was used to, and it was such a novelty to have a hamburger, fries and milkshake at a diner,” he said.
“I feel more secure and at home here and free to express my creative, colorful self.”
A man of many talents, Chew also moonlights as a DJ, portrait photographer and event planner.
On June 29, Chew officially became a U.S. citizen.
This Thanksgiving will be extra-special for the West Village resident as it’s his first time celebrating the holiday as an American.
“I’m thankful for my health and support system, having suffered loss of loved ones to cancer,” he said. “Understanding the importance of self-care and mental health by trying to find pockets of happiness and not take any day or experience for granted.”
Chew will be celebrating Thursday with his extended Italian family on Long Island and then again on Friday with friends in Brooklyn.
“I suspect there will be Jackbox and bourbon cocktails.”
Fast facts on citizenship
- Last year, more than 972,000 people applied for U.S. citizenship, and more than 753,000 were granted it — marking a 3% jump from the year before.
- In 2015, 783,000 people sought citizenship. Of those, more than 730,000 were successful in their bids to become full-fledged Americans.
- In New York, Newark and Jersey City, more than 122,000 people were sworn in as U.S. citizens during 2016.
- The four-step path to naturalization entails submitting an application, undergoing background checks and fingerprinting, taking the civics test and being interviewed and taking the Naturalization Oath of Allegiance. New Americans receive a certificate of citizenship.