Twenty-five years ago, Osvaldo Jimenez fled Cuba on a rickety raft, one of 35,000 people cast off by Fidel Castro in the summer of 1994. The communist dictator was fed up with anti-government protesters who rallied relentlessly after the Soviet Union collapsed and Cuba’s food and fuel subsidies dried up.

Osvaldo Jimenez, 44, a Cuban immigrant who lives in Belfast, participates in Friday’s naturalization ceremony as his son Antonio, 6, holds an American flag. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Jimenez was 19 years old and looking for adventure as much as economic opportunity. Rescued by the Coast Guard, he was granted permanent U.S. residency as a political refugee. Over the next 15 years, he worked his way from Miami, Florida, to Belfast, Maine, where he settled 10 years ago and started a family.

On Friday, Jimenez was one of 72 Mainers who became U.S. citizens in two naturalization ceremonies held in the Rines Auditorium at the Portland Public Library.

Jimenez, 44, sat in the back row with his wife, Kira Sweetland, a Belfast native, and their two sons, Osvaldo, 8, and Antonio, 6. The long-haul trucker quietly surveyed the room as people from every part of the globe gathered for the afternoon event. Asked for his thoughts on the step he was about to take, he answered simply.

“It’s good,” Jimenez said, smiling. “I’m excited. This is my country now.”

The library hosted late morning and early afternoon ceremonies Friday that naturalized Mainers from 30 countries: Bosnia and Herzegovina, Brazil, Bulgaria, Burundi, Cambodia, Canada, Cape Verde, China, Cuba, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ecuador, Germany, India, Iraq, Jamaica, Japan, Kazakhstan, New Zealand, Philippines, Republic of the Congo, Russia, Rwanda, Serbia, Somalia, South Africa, Thailand, Trinidad and Tobago, Ukraine, United Kingdom and Vietnam.

Sarah Campbell, executive director of the library, addressed the new citizens.

“This is an opportunity for me, (someone) who has been a citizen all my life, to reaffirm my citizenship,” Campbell said. “We share the pride you feel today. You keep us vibrant. You keep us growing.”

Sagad Albadri 15, of Augusta says the Pledge of Allegiance with his grandfather Mahidy Albadri, 82, during the ceremony at the Portland Public Library on Friday. They are originally from Iraq and moved to the U.S. five years ago. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

The new citizens came from all over Maine. Some attended alone, while others were accompanied by family members and friends.

Christian Bukele, 42, was there with his wife, Ghizlane Mejjani, 33, and their 2-year-old twin sons, Larbi and Ali, as well as Mejjani’s parents, who are visiting from Morocco. He wore a dark suit with a vibrant pink shirt and a small matching pink carnation tucked in his jacket’s lapel. Mejjani and the twins wore traditional Moroccan clothing.

Bukele is from the war-torn Democratic Republic of the Congo. Bukele met Mejjani when he was studying computer science in Morocco. He came to the United States in 2013 and she followed in 2016. They live in Portland and both manufacture windows at Paradigm.

An international couple, Bukele and Mejjani speak several languages, including English. They converse primarily in French because he doesn’t speak her native Arabic and she doesn’t speak his native Lingala.

“It was a dream for me when I was young to come to the United States,” Bukele said with a warm French accent. “Here I am free. Here I am safe.”

Christian Bukele holds his son Larbi, 2, as Larbi reaches for an American flag before the naturalization ceremony at the Portland Public Library on Friday. Christian, who lives in Portland, is originally from the Democratic Republic of the Congo and came to America five years ago. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Bukele gets emotional when asked about the recent influx of asylum seekers from Africa who are coming to Portland from the southern U.S. border. Many are from the Democratic Republic of the Congo and other sub-Saharan countries, having made the long and dangerous journey through Central America and Mexico to get here.

He said often the leaders of those countries pursue their own goals and leave others to suffer. He looks forward to the day his wife becomes a U.S. citizen, too. He also hopes to go back to school and work in computer science in the future.

“Right now I have to make money for my family,” Bukele said.

In some cases, two or more family members became citizens at the same time.

Martin Turnidge, 48, a software engineering manager who lives in Saco, swore the Oath of Allegiance with his wife, Carolyn, 46, and their daughters Miriam, 16, and Elizabeth, 15. Their 12-year-old son, Evan, was born after the family moved from the United Kingdom to the United States.

“It means we can take full part in the country we’ve lived in for a long time,” Martin Turnidge said after bowing his head and reflecting for a moment on a reporter’s question.

Members of the League of Women Voters were at the library Friday, providing forms so eligible new citizens could register to vote.

Turnidge acknowledged the current backdrop of political division in the United States and the United Kingdom, where government leaders continue to struggle after the 2016 Brexit vote to leave the European Union.

“It certainly feels like a time where being a citizen is very important and taking part in civil life is very important,” Turnidge said.


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