February 24, 2007

Cortland welcomes newest U.S. citizens


Photo by Bob Ellis/staff photographer
Sonam Chodon, of Ithaca, takes the oath of allegiance with 33 others from 21 countries during a naturalization ceremony Friday at the Cortland County Courthouse. Chodon, a native of Tibet, has lived in the United States for the six years.

Staff Reporter

It’s been more than a decade since Ghassan Wehbe was sworn in as an American citizen, but as he spoke to 34 of the country’s newest citizens at a naturalization ceremony at the Cortland County Courthouse Friday, it was impossible not to feel like one of the group.
“Even 11 years after I became a citizen I still feel the same way, I still get choked up,” said Wehbe, who emigrated from Lebanon and now lives in Truxton, where he serves on the Town Board. “It’s just a wonderful feeling — some people born here might take it for granted, but to become a citizen of this country … there’s nothing in the world like it.”
Wehbe spoke to those sworn in at the ceremony about his service on the Truxton board and emphasized the importance of voting, a right that many of the new citizens heralded afterward.
“The right to vote is the most important thing,” said Sonam Chodon, an Ithaca resident who emigrated from Tibet six years ago.
Chodon’s only regret was that her family is living in India, she said. “It’s very emotional, I wish they were here to see it.”
Amna Gafsi, originally from Tunisia, was glad to be sworn in while her husband, Rachit, who is himself seeking citizenship, and her two children watched.
“Of course I’m going to vote as soon as I can, that’s the best thing,” Gafsi said. “I love living here and I’m so happy — I will have so much more opportunity.”
Gustavo Campos and his wife, Nohemi, both were sworn in as citizens, completing a long road toward citizenship that began when Gustavo first moved north from Mexico in 1996, seeking an undergraduate degree at the University of Illinois, he said.
“After 10 years, finally — it just feels incredible,” said Campos, who now is seeking an MBA at Cornell University. “The right to vote, to be a part of this country — I sometimes think when my son grows up, if he wants to serve this country, I’ll be very, very proud.”
For many in attendance who were born U.S. citizens, the ceremony served as a sober reminder of the rights and responsibilities they often take for granted.
“How many people groan about jury duty, and maybe rightfully so, because it disrupts their daily lives — but when you see people crying out of happiness to have the privilege of serving on a jury, of voting, it’s really a reminder of the privilege and responsibility of being a U.S. citizen,” Supreme Court Justice Phillip Rumsey, who presided over the ceremony, said afterward.
Pablo Cohen, who was sworn in Friday, agreed, saying that there are many rights that Americans often overlook.
“Sometimes people talk about certain aspects of the Constitution, but really it’s something that people use every day,” said Cohen, who emigrated from Argentina. “I say it all the time, you should live and be grateful for all aspects of it, all of the freedoms it permits.”
Of the 34 new citizens, eight or nine were from Cortland County, said Edward Newman of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration, with the rest hailing from Tompkins County.
This is the second year in a row that Cortland County has hosted a naturalization ceremony, and Rumsey said he hoped to make it an annual event.
“When you see folks like this who have spent so much time and effort and energy just for the privilege of being a part of this country — that’s why we do everything we can to make sure this is a special event for them,” he said.
The efforts of Rumsey and County Clerk Betsy Larkin paid off, according to Cohen, who said that the attention to detail made it all the more special for him.
“I think what I’d like to say most of all is, this country empowers you to be the very best you can be,” Cohen said. “That’s something nobody, whether they were born here or not, should forget.”



Petition calls for max sentence for abuse

Staff Reporter

ITHACA — Two Dryden community groups submitted a petition Friday morning to the Tompkins County district attorney requesting that a local man receive life in prison for sexual abuse and assault charges of which he is accused.
The two groups also are planning a fundraiser for the two children the man is accused of abusing.
Dawn Potter, the head of Project Dryden Child, said that with the help of New Mom’s Support Group, she has gathered a petition with 455 signatures requesting that District Attorney Gwen Wilkinson not recommend anything less than the maximum sentence in the case of Jacob Carter.
“I don’t think Mr. Carter should see the light of day again,” Potter said. “He should be incarcerated for life.”
Carter, 23, lived at 7 Anchor Drive when he was arrested on Jan. 2 and accused of assaulting a 3-year-old boy, the Tompkins County Sheriff’s Department said. Police said that while Carter was supposed to be babysitting the boy and his 1 1/2-year-old sister, he punched and stomped on_the child’s abdomen, putting him in critical condition at University Hospital in Syracuse.
Carter also sexually abused the young girl, police said.
Wilkinson said Friday morning that she had received the petition and that she couldn’t comment further on the case at the time.
Potter said her group has been circulating the petition after she spoke with the children’s mother about a plea offer that Carter may be receiving in County Court.
“The mother was upset that Mr. Carter was going to receive a plea agreement,” she said.
Wilkinson said on Feb. 15 that she had presented a plea offer to Carter’s attorney, Mari Kania, under which he would plead guilty to predatory sexual assault against a child, the most serious charge allowable by law, along with first-degree assault, and two counts of first-degree sexual abuse, all felonies.
The maximum sentence for the predatory sexual assault charge is life in prison.
Carter’s next court date has not been scheduled.
In addition to the groups’ work at gathering signatures for the petition, they also have planned a March 10 benefit for the family at the Dryden Fire Hall.
Potter said that since the assault, the children’s mother has been forced to use up most of her savings on medical bills and that she has not been able to work because she has been at the hospital with her son.
“The little boy is going to have to have additional surgery,” Potter said, adding that he was released from the hospital last week.
More than 100 local businesses have donated prizes for a silent auction, Potter explained, adding she also has planned a spaghetti dinner, a bake sale, a used book sale, a 50/50 auction and a spare change collection. She said she still hopes to get a used car donated for the auction. Local bands, the Sweet Adelines and Bill Sherwood’s Round and Square Dance Band are scheduled to perform at the event.
“This benefit is absolutely wonderful,” Potter said. “We chose the fire station because the little boy loves fire trucks.”
Potter said other local community groups, such as Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity and Delta Delta Delta sorority, both of Cornell University, the TC3 Nursing Club as well as the Newfield Harley Davidson Motorcycle Club all have volunteered their time and services.
The event will begin at noon and conclude at 4 p.m. Anyone interested in donating time, baked goods or used books for the event should call Potter at (607) 273-6493 or drop items off at the Varna Community Center at 943 Dryden Road, Ithaca, by March 9. If anyone wishes to donate money, checks can be made out to Project Dryden Child and sent c/o the New Mom’s Support Group, PO Box 4771, Ithaca, NY 14850.