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Syrian man leads Pledge of Allegiance at citizenship event

Rohi Atassi, right, from Syria, leads new US citizens in the Pledge of Allegiance after Atassi and 116 others from 37 countries took the oath of citizenship from U.S. District Judge Sara Ellis, left, in the Northern District of Illinois, during a naturalization ceremony Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2017, in Chicago. Atassi has not returned to Syria since his last visit in the fall of 2011. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)
Rohi Atassi, right, from Syria, leads new US citizens in the Pledge of Allegiance after Atassi and 116 others from 37 countries took the oath of citizenship during a naturalization ceremony Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2017, in Chicago. Atassi has not returned to Syria since his last visit in the fall of 2011. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)
Mirna Araceli Contreras, right, from Honduras, takes a selfie with U.S. District Judge Sara Ellis, in the Northern District of Illinois, after Contreras and 116 others from 37 countries became citizens during a Naturalization ceremony Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2017, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)
Many of the 117 immigrants from 37 countries take the oath of citizenship from U.S. District Judge Sara Ellis, in the Northern District of Illinois, during a naturalization ceremony Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2017, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)
Hamdi Mohamed, from Libya, waits to take the oath of citizenship from U.S. District Judge Sara Ellis, in the Northern District of Illinois, during a naturalization ceremony where 117 immigrants from 37 countries became citizens Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2017, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)
Hamdi Mohamed, from Libya, takes the oath of citizenship from U.S. District Judge Sara Ellis, in the Northern District of Illinois, during a naturalization ceremony where 117 immigrants from 37 countries became citizens Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2017, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)
The right hand of Syed Naqvi, from Pakistan, is raised as he takes the oath of citizenship from U.S. District Judge Sara Ellis, in the Northern District of Illinois, during a naturalization ceremony where 117 immigrants from 37countries became citizens Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2017, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)
The right hand of Aseel Jan, from Iraq, is raised as she takes the oath of citizenship from U.S. District Judge Sara Ellis, in the Northern District of Illinois, during a naturalization ceremony where 117 immigrants from 37 countries became citizens Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2017, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)
Mary Yoo, from Korea, poses under the American flag after joining 116 immigrants from 37 countries in becoming US citizens during a naturalization ceremony Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2017, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)
Spectators record their friend or family member out of the 117 immigrants from 37 countries taking the oath of citizenship during a naturalization ceremony Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2017, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

CHICAGO — Rohi Atassi was among 117 immigrants to become the newest American citizens during a Chicago naturalization ceremony Tuesday, but the Syrian dentist stood out among his peers.

The 29-year-old was unexpectedly asked to lead immigrants from 37 countries in reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. Federal Judge Sara Ellis, who oversaw the ceremony, asked for a Syrian volunteer after delivering an impassioned speech about the difficulties immigrants face.

While she never specifically mentioned President Donald Trump's executive order barring immigration from seven predominantly Muslim countries including Syria, Atassi said her words resonated with him.

"I'm very happy that a Syrian who just became an American had a chance to lead the pledge," he said.

He and his family have been on edge the last few weeks as he's had friends detained at airports because of the executive action, which is undergoing legal challenges. He was left wondering if his citizenship would be approved and questioning how he'd travel. His family members have mixed citizenship status: His mother is a naturalized U.S. citizen, his father has a green card and his fiancee is U.S. born with Syrian roots.

Atassi, who's had a green card for a decade, has watched his birthplace of Aleppo destroyed by years of war.

"The Syrian people are already victims," he said. "All these people are running from terrorism."

During the ceremony, Ellis talked about her own experiences of becoming a U.S. citizen and judge. Her family is from Jamaica and she was born in Canada. Ellis was nominated to the post in 2013 by former President Barack Obama. Her office declined to elaborate on Tuesday's ceremony, saying only that she usually asks a new American to recite the Pledge of Allegiance.

As for Atassi, his first orders of business were to register to vote and apply for a U.S. passport.

"I'm allowed to participate in a democracy. I'm excited to experience it," he said, adding that he was encouraged by the supportive atmosphere of the ceremony. "When I was leaving, a few people told me, 'Congratulations, welcome home.'"

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Follow Sophia Tareen on Twitter at https://twitter.com/sophiatareen .

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