May 4, 2013

New citizen: 'now the United States are my home'

Forty-five people from other lands take the oath of allegiance and become U.S. citizens.

By David Hench
Staff Writer

Looking sharp in a charcoal gray suit and smiling broadly, Muktar Hersi held up his citizenship certificate to a cheering group of supporters at Portland High School, then made a gesture of dusting off his shoulders.

click image to enlarge

Kandok Ring smiles for a family photo after his mother, Nybol Lual, originally of Sudan, became a U.S. citizen at a naturalization ceremony on Friday at Portland High School.

Gabe Souza / Staff Photographer

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U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services naturalized 45 new U.S. citizens on Friday during a ceremony at Portland High School.

Gabe Souza / Staff Photographer

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The truck driver from Auburn explained that the gesture symbolized getting rid of what he'd left behind, breaking with a painful past and starting anew in a land of opportunity and freedom.

"I'm at the top of the mountain," said Hersi, who fled civil war in Somalia that claimed his brother's life.

Hersi was among 45 people born in other lands who took the oath of allegiance Friday and became naturalized as U.S. citizens. They swore to defend the country and the Constitution, with arms and with civilian works, if called on.

The naturalization ceremony included immigrants from vastly different backgrounds and countries -- Somalia, Scotland, Bahamas, Vietnam -- with widely different life stories, including war refugees, people who came to the United States for advanced education, and those who were visiting years ago and fell in love with an American.

"I feel now the United States are my home. This is where I see my future," said Paula Boel, an economics professor at Bowdoin College who is originally from Italy. She came to the United States in 2000 to earn her Ph.D. at Purdue University. "I would like to be able to participate in all aspects of the country."

Muktar Hersi's path was different. His family fled war in northern Somalia when he was 15, walking through Ethiopia to the Somali capital, Mogadishu, only to have the central government collapse into civil war. They fled south to Kenya and 20 years ago emigrated to the United States, settling first in Atlanta, then moving to Maine in 2001.

For him, the United States is a land of freedom.

"You have the same rights whether you get here yesterday or came here a hundred years ago," Hersi said. "I work. I have a family. I have a house. I have a big semi-truck. ... My daughter is going to Georgetown.

"Whatever you want to do in America, you will be able to find it."

For many of those who navigated the minefields of violence and hardship to arrive at this point, the freedom to be who they are is what means the most in their new life.

Oday Saood of South Portland had been kidnapped twice in Iraq -- the first time just himself, then a second time with his family. They were singled out because they were an ethnic minority.

"In Maine, we are more safe," said Saood, who manages a business working with rental car agencies. In Iraq, he owned a fashion shop before he and his family emigrated to Turkey in 2006.

His wife, Alaa Jasem, works in the multilingual program in the Portland school system and was an English teacher in Iraq, where they were not able to live without interference from people who resented their ethnic background, she said.

"Here you can tell there's nothing different between you and another citizen and everybody respects the others," she said.

The keynote speaker at Friday's ceremony was Tim Wilson, special adviser to Seeds of Peace, a youth leadership organization that brings together young people from countries where there is animosity between different ethnicities and helps them learn to relate to each other as people. Acknowledging the many paths that have led people to become Americans, Wilson, who is of African-American heritage, said he is descended from someone brought to the United States against his will.

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

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A new citizen holds a small American flag during a naturalization ceremony at Portland High School on Friday.

Gabe Souza / Staff Photographer


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