When Kosay Alwan fled with his family to America as refugees five years ago to escape the violence in Iraq, he worried at first that they would be persecuted in the United States for their Muslim religion.
But Alwan, who was a college-educated farmer in Iraq, decided to take that chance when the U.S. Embassy in Turkey cleared him to come to America with his wife, Kawaid, and their family, which at the time was just two young daughters.
Now happily settled in Westbrook, he said he learned that his worries were unfounded. People here have accepted him and his wife, their daughters, Sahar, 13, and Naba, 6, and their son, Ali, who was born in the United States three years ago.
“You can do what you want here,” Alwan said. “I came as a fugitive to this country, so I see a life here and it’s very safe for me and my family. So I decided to apply to become a citizen. You know that Iraq is not a safe place and the violence there.”
Alwan and his family members were among 80 people from 30 countries sworn in as new citizens at a naturalization ceremony Friday at Lyman Moore Middle School in Portland. Three more people who could not attend the ceremony were sworn in later in the day at the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services office in Portland.
The largest group of those new citizens came from Iraq – 15 people, including the Alwans. Eleven came from Somalia, six from Iran and five from Sudan. Others came from Austria, Cambodia, the Himalayan nation of Nepal and the tiny African nation of Togo.
Sally Blauvelt, director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services in Maine, said Friday’s event was just one of many naturalization ceremonies her office performs around the state, including smaller ones held every other Friday in federal court.
Since taking office three years ago, Blauvelt said she has been “very aggressive” about searching out venues like Lyman Moore Middle School and the Middle School of the Kennebunks, where a similar ceremony was held three weeks ago, so students can witness the ceremonies firsthand.
The number of new citizens being naturalized in Maine has been fairly steady in recent years, roughly 50 to 100 people every month, Blauvelt said.
The most recent data from the Department of Homeland Security indicate that the number of new citizens naturalized in Maine had been rising in the last decade but has since leveled off, to slightly fewer than 1,000 people annually: 839 people in 2010, 999 in 2011 and 941 in 2012, the most recent year for which figures were available.
Friday’s ceremony at Lyman Moore Middle School, in Portland’s North Deering neighborhood, was particularly moving for many of the students since North Deering has a large immigrant population.
Sixth-grade student Sara Ali, 11, came to the United States from Sudan with her family when she was 7 years old. On Friday, she sang “America the Beautiful” and “This Land is Your Land” as part of her class’s chorus as both her aunt and uncle were sworn in as new citizens.
Sara said she was “really excited” as she posed for pictures with her aunt, Sakeena Rashid, and her uncle, Abdelrazig Abdelshafie, who both came to the United States in 2009.
One of Sara’s teachers, David Hilton, had been teaching the sixth-grade students about immigration for the last seven weeks in a program that involved multiple school subjects.
“They’ve been researching all their family history and about who they are,” Hilton said. “It’s been really fun.”
Students also got a chance to talk to the new citizens during an informal breakfast in the school cafeteria before the ceremony began.
Svetlana Biscornet, who moved to the United States from the city of Vitebsk in Belarus near the Russian border, talked to students as she sat with her husband, Etan Biscornet, who grew up in Maine.
Svetlana Biscornet, 30, who works as a website designer, first came to the United States nine years ago for work without plans to remain in the country. She had received her art degree in Belarus, but decided to stay on to get an associate degree in computer technology.
“I just kept staying here. I guess that’s the best way to explain it,” she said with a laugh.
She met Etan, an artist, through mutual friends in southern Maine. They married, sealing her decision to stay in the United States, although they visit Belarus every year.
“He likes foreigners, I guess,” she joked with her husband.
Scott Dolan can be contacted at 791-6304 or at: