Judge asks new Syrian-American to lead Pledge of Allegiance

Rohi Atassi, from Syria, leads new US citizens in the Pledge of Allegiance in Chicago.

Story highlights

  • 117 new US citizens are sworn in by Judge Sara L. Ellis on Tuesday
  • Ellis recalls how she took that same oath 30 years ago

Chicago (CNN)A federal judge made an impassioned speech, comparing her own swearing-in as a new citizen 30 years ago to that of 117 new United States citizens she swore in on Tuesday in Chicago.

Judge Sara L. Ellis of the Northern District of Illinois reminded the new US citizens on Tuesday, "Thirty years ago, I took this very same oath. I am an immigrant just like you."
Syrian-born Rohi Atassi had a sense he would be singled out during his swearing-in ceremony.
    "I always had dreams I was going to get called into court," he said. "I thought they would tell me, 'Unfortunately, you're Syrian. You're not going to take your oath today.'"
    That is not what happened to Atassi, 29.
    "I notice that we've got some new citizens from Syria," Ellis said as she ended her remarks, according to a transcript provided to CNN by the court clerk's office. "If you would come forward, please, and if you would just come up to the front. ... If you could lead us in the Pledge of Allegiance, that would be great," she said to Atassi.
    The 117 new US citizens rose and placed their hands over their hearts.
    "I pledge allegiance, to the flag," Attasi recited, for the first time as a US citizen.
    He did so nervously. But he did it.
    Rohi Atassi and Judge Sara L. Elllis after the swearing in ceremony.
    "I felt extremely safe," he told CNN by phone, recounting the moment. "Since I lost my first one, I have a country that can take care of me. I have a flag to look up to."
    Atassi was born in Aleppo, Syria, in 1987. His parents had moved back to their home country to raise their children. His father already had a US green card.
    While there, Atassi began dental studies in 2007. The same year, he, too, obtained a green card. He maintained his residency in the United States by returning every six months.
    In his final year at dental school, the Arab Spring reached Syria and revolution broke out, and quickly devolved into civil war.
    "I had to stay in Syria during the revolution," he said. "I got the chance to see, day by day, exactly what's happening and how this chaos started."
    Atassi pointed out he is not a refugee.
    "But I was forced to resettle, to move out of Syria because of the regime," he said.
    Ellis has her own immigration story.
    Born in Ontario, Canada, to Jamaican-born parents, she became a US citizen at age 15, according to Senate records. In her speech at the swearing-in ceremony, she remembered the, "very hot, cramped immigration office," in Indianapolis as she stood next to her brother and sister.
    Giving her oath of allegiance to the United States is something that is still an extremely powerful experience for her.
    "I was moved by those words then, and I continue to be moved by those words 30 years later," she said, according to the transcript.
    Although she did not mention President Donald Trump by name, or the executive order banning travel from seven countries and all refugees from entry in the United States, it was clear the message had a target audience.
    "There are very negative things that have been said and negative opinions that have been voiced," she said. "I want you to know and believe in your heart that you are welcome here."
    Judge Ellis' full remarks are below: