BUXTON — The last time Mohammed Mahmoud Hassan cast a ballot, he was a young medical student in his home country of Somalia. Now 64, he remembers that the only real option was to support the party in power.

On Tuesday, he will return to the polls for the first time in decades, one of his first acts as an American citizen.

“Here, you have the freedom to choose,” Hassan said.

Hassan was one of 26 people from 16 countries to be naturalized during a ceremony at Bonny Eagle Middle School in Buxton on Friday. The students decorated poster boards with the flags of those countries – from Jamaica to Switzerland, Iraq to Vietnam, the United Kingdom to Nigeria – and hung them on the back wall of the gym. The soon-to-be American citizens sat in three neat rows of chairs in front of the stage, and their families and friends beamed and snapped photos from the rows behind them.

Nearby, volunteers from the League of Women Voters waited outside to hand out voter registration cards at the end of the ceremony. This group had come to be naturalized just days before the midterm elections, as President Trump has attempted to make immigration a central issue for voters. He has made new promises this week to restrict immigration to the U.S., which these 26 people already knew as a complex process.

“At this time, are you ready to become United States citizens?” asked Cindy Lembarra, the field office director for the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services office in South Portland.

The group answered with a loud “yes.” Their voices joined in a jumbled repetition of the oath, and when it was over, everyone in the auditorium gave the new citizens a standing ovation.

Luis Sanchez of Saco poses with his wife, Raimy Sanchez Constantine, and daughters Sophia Sanchez and Julia Constantine, right, after becoming a U.S. citizen Friday at Buxton Middle School. Sanchez, who came to the U.S. from the Dominican Republican in 2012, had a sense of relief. “I can’t be deported,” he said. Staff photo by Derek Davis

Luis Sanchez, 26, of Saco stood solemnly in his blue suit while he repeated the words, but he broke into a smile when his daughter ran to him. Two-year-old Sophia Sanchez grabbed the small American flag from her father’s hands, twirling in her pink-and-purple dress and dancing to “I’m Proud To Be An American.”

Sanchez first came to the United States from the Dominican Republic in 2012. He worked at Funtown Splashtown USA in Saco on a cultural exchange program for students that summer, and he met his future wife at a gathering with friends. She is also from the Dominican Republic and became an American citizen in 2009. They got married the following year. He has worked different jobs and is currently an Uber driver.

He planned to vote on Election Day, but on the morning he became a citizen, he was focused on the moment of relief and pride.

Lihn Pham of Portland poses for a photograph after becoming a U.S. citizen Friday at Buxton Middle School. Pham, 54, studied hard this week to pass her citizenship test. Staff photo by Derek Davis

“I can’t be deported,” he said. “You are secure with your family.”

Originally from Vietnam, 54-year-old Linh Pham of Portland had been studying hard to pass her citizenship test this week. Her daughter, 29-year-old Ngan Lieu, carried a bouquet of pink roses and an American flag balloon for her mother. Mother and daughter had called her tutor, Gerry Day of Gorham, on Thursday night to make sure she could attend the ceremony with them the next day. The three women beamed as they walked out of the school together.

“She works six days a week,” Day said. “She did her homework every night.”

Hassan, from Somalia, had raised his hand high above his head during the citizenship ceremony. He was a doctor until civil war tore his home apart and forced his family to flee, and he came to the United States in 2013 as a refugee. Now he lives in the U.S. with his wife and six children. Unable to practice medicine in America, Hassan works as an interpreter for Catholic Charities.

“All my family and myself are safe,” he said. “I hope my family who are young have better opportunities.”

Megan Doyle can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: megan_e_doyle

filed under: