PORTLAND – Mohamed Ali would listen to the study guide for becoming a U.S. citizen on his iPod or in his car.

He had already learned most of the material for the civics test in history class at Lewiston High School.

When he heard something he didn’t know, he’d write down the track number.

“I repeat it, repeat it, repeat it, and it got stuck in my head,” said Ali, 19, who passed the citizenship test in August.

Eight years after leaving a refugee camp in Kenya for the U.S., he took the last step toward becoming an American citizen on Tuesday.

Ali was one of 75 Maine residents from 30 countries who raised their right hands and repeated the Oath of Allegiance at Ocean Gateway in Portland to become naturalized citizens.

Similar but smaller ceremonies are held throughout the state every year.

This was the first one to take place on Constitution Day and Citizenship Day, according to Cindy Lembarra, U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services’ acting field officer director in Portland.

Citizenship Day has been officially recognized on Sept. 17 since President Harry Truman signed a bill formalizing it in 1952. Congress established the date as Constitution Day and Citizenship Day in 2004.

Along with the new Americans, Tuesday’s ceremony was attended by about twice as many guests and featured a keynote speech by Portland Mayor Michael Brennan, who talked about his grandmother immigrating to Portland from Ireland in 1909.

Throughout the week, there will be 180 ceremonies in the country for more than 180,000 people becoming U.S. citizens.

“It’s crazy, right?” Ali said about becoming a U.S. citizen on the same date — 226 years later — as the ratification of the U.S. Constitution.

Ali’s father became a citizen more than a year ago. Although his younger siblings were able to get their citizenship along with their father, Ali was already 18 — old enough that he had to do it on his own.

The process of becoming a citizen usually takes about three or four months, said Kurt Pelletier, an immigration services officer in Portland.

It includes an interview, an English test and the civics test, along with the submission of documentation.

Most of that was no problem for Ali.

He’s lived in America since he was 11 years old.

He never experienced war, unlike his parents, who fled Somalia for Kenya before he was born.

But his life in refugee camps wasn’t anything like it is here.

There was never enough food or clean water, he said. People were often sick and died every week. When it rained, their shelters would collapse.

Ali remembers flying into Indianapolis and getting his first sight of America.

“It was a dream come true,” he said, recalling the size of the buildings and the people walking the streets.

After a year in Indiana, where Ali learned English, his family moved to Lewiston.

He graduated in the spring from Lewiston High School, where he was a captain of the soccer team.

Now, he’s taking accounting classes at Central Maine Community College while working for Procter & Gamble in Auburn.

Ali said he can’t imagine moving back to Africa and dealing with the heat.

“I grew up in America,” he said. After the half-hour ceremony Tuesday, he was officially an American.

“It feels wonderful,” Ali said.


Leslie Bridgers can be contacted at 791-6364 or at:

[email protected]


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