For Aung Myat and Bway Paw, a Karen couple who are refugees from Burma, their journey to becoming United States citizens didn't conclude with a public ceremony.
Instead of taking the oath alongside other soon-to-be citizens, Paw and Myat, who is bedridden with cancer, took the oath of allegiance inside their St. Paul home Friday morning in a special celebration.
"This was such a beautiful private ceremony," said the couple's lawyer, Susie NaoBliaVang Thao. "Even though Mr. Myat doesn't have many days left, in the little time that he has left, he has chosen to take this time and opportunity to become a U.S. citizen and to fulfill this dream."
It was the first private naturalization ceremony in Minnesota's federal court district since the pandemic started, according to Judge Donovan Frank, who performed the ceremony.
According to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the rare events usually occur when someone is dealing with special circumstances, or has a disability or a health condition and cannot attend a traditional ceremony.
The couple first met Thao, who works as a staff attorney for Southern Minnesota Regional Legal Services, more than a year ago to begin the official process of gaining citizenship. Thao said Myat and Paw told her they were committed to taking the oath and becoming U.S. citizens.
They had arrived in the United States on Nov. 6, 2013. Thao said they talked about the hardships they encountered during wartime in Burma, including the loss of one of their children.
"They've survived war, staked their lives in America and now commit the rest of their days to a country that they love," Thao said.
After that initial meeting with Thao, Myat was diagnosed with oral cavity cancer. He was still able to complete his citizenship requirements, including an interview in December, without special accommodations. But Myat recently became immobile due to the cancer. When Thao found out about Myat's health downturn Monday, she started making calls.
Myat and Paw were scheduled to attend their naturalization ceremonies in downtown Minneapolis on Friday, but Myat's condition made it impossible for him.
Thao and local officials arranged for the private naturalization ceremony, with Paw also allowed to become a U.S. citizen at home by her husband's side.
Paw said through an interpreter that she is grateful to have the opportunity.
"I'm really, really happy to become an American citizen," Paw said.
The ceremony lasted about 20 minutes. Extra precautions were put in place with all participants wearing masks and the judge maintaining social distance. With a large Karen flag draped behind them, Myat and Paw said the oath and each received official documents, a copy of the U.S. Constitution and a small American flag.
Frank said he has performed about a dozen of these personal ceremonies over the past 20 years, and that they are available to anyone in an emergency situation.
The judge added that it is not only a special occasion for the family, but also for him as it is a true privilege to be able to administer the oath.
"What I said to them today was … it's citizens like you who make our country strong because diversity is a strength of our country," Frank said. "We are a better country today than we were a few minutes ago."
Peter Warren • 612-673-1713