On the 4th of July, millions of Americans celebrate what it means to be an American. Some have been here for generations. Others have just become citizens.

For this year’s Independence Day, we talked to a few of those new Americans. Why did they come to the United States? Why did they want to stay? What does earning their citizenship mean to them?

The answers are as diverse as the people who come here. 


Name: Kassaye Andoniades

Origin: Ethiopia

They met shopping in a store in Ethiopia — she a young 20-something from the area, he an American chief engineer from a ship that was delivering food to the region. They smiled, chatted. She invited him for coffee.

Soon after, Kassaye and Emilio Andoniades married. The couple moved to Emilio’s home in Maine, where they had three children and helped raise Emilio’s three older children from a previous marriage.

Married to a citizen, Kassaye was a permanent U.S. resident. But after six years here, she wanted more. She wanted to be a full citizen.

“For more opportunities,” she said. “To vote, especially.”

Kassaye took her citizenship test in early June. She was sworn in as a citizen soon after.

Weeks later, customers of the couple’s convenience store — Kassey’s on Lisbon Street in Lewiston — still congratulate Kassaye on passing the test. Some lean over the counter to give her a hug.

Kassaye’s husband knows what the celebration feels like. Originally from Turkey, he arrived in America with his parents when he was 6 years old. He earned his citizenship when he was a freshman at Maine Maritime Academy 34 years ago.

“Everyone wants to become a citizen,” he said. “That’s when you feel like you’re part of the team.”


Name: Raihanah Alsameai

Age: 32

Origin: Yemen

Raihanah Alsameai was on vacation in New York City, visiting a mosque, when she met the man she would marry. He was from New York. She was from Yemen.

Soon after they married, the couple moved to Maine.

Like Kassaye Andoniades, Alsameai became a permanent U.S. resident when she married. She didn’t have to become a full citizen to stay with her husband in the United States, but she needed citizenship, she felt, to achieve a better life.

“I need to vote and I need job and I need to study. For all this I need to be a citizen, to become citizen of the United States,” she said.

Alsameai had to pass a citizenship test, which includes questions on American history and government structure. She also had to show a command of the English language. Alsameai, who had earned a bachelor’s degree in history in Yemen, didn’t find the test too difficult.

Well, most of the test.

“A little bit hard was the language,” Alsameai said.

Her naturalization ceremony was held last month. Alsameai, who has been out of work for the last two years, has high hopes for the future: a job.

“This is first thing I want,” she said.


Name: Thuan Ha

Origin: Vietnam

Thuan Ha was 11 when she arrived in the United States with her parents, four brothers and two sisters. The family settled briefly in Minnesota before moving to Rumford.

Ha grew up in the area, went to school and had a family. But she couldn’t vote. She couldn’t travel, too worried that once she left the country she wouldn’t be able to get back in.

Becoming an American citizen would mean one thing for her: freedom.

Last May, the same day she graduated from Central Maine Community College in Auburn, Ha became a citizen. That November, she did two things she had never done before.

She voted for president.

And she traveled outside the United States.

Ha took her three girls to Vietnam to visit family. For the first time, her children got to meet their extended family and play with their cousins.

“My girls loved it. Loved it,” she said.

Ha’s first visit to Vietnam in more than 20 years showed her a country burdened by communism and poverty. Her family there, while not rich, is happy, and Ha, and her girls are eager to return to visit them. But Ha appreciated her new citizenship all the more.

What does being American mean to her?

“Everything,” she said.

 Photos taken by Jose Leiva, Sun Journal staff photographer.

Thuan Ha, 35, of Auburn became an American citizen in 2008. She is a native of Vietnam.

Coming to America: the numbers are rising

According to the Office of Immigration Statistics, which is part of the
U.S. Department of Homeland Security, naturalization of foreign
nationals grew “at a record pace between 2006 and 2008 with a total of
2.4 million immigrants becoming new citizens in the United States.”
Last year, just over 1 million immigrants became naturalized citizens
across the country, more than half of them women.

In Maine, a total of 924 immigrants were naturalized in 2008 and,
following the national trend, there were more women than men. That
compares to 340 naturalized citizens in 1999, more than doubling the
number of new citizens in a decade.

According to Homeland Security, of those naturalized in Maine in
2007, 102 were from Somalia, followed by 81 from Canada, 38 from
Cambodia, 38 from China, 36 from Sudan and 57 from Vietnam. Other
countries included Bosnia and Herzegovina, India, Afghanistan,
Thailand, the United Kingdom, the Philippines and Mexico. Nationwide,
the top five countries of origin for immigrants naturalized last year
were Mexico (232,000), India (66,000), Philippines (59,000), China (40,000) and Cuba
(40,000).

A few specifics on the who and the how:

• The most common age for people becoming U.S. citizens is between 35 and 39 years, and most are married.

• Naturalized citizens must fulfill requirements of the Immigration and
Nationality Act in order to be sworn as U.S. citizens, including being
a permanent resident of the United States for five years. If married to
an American, that residency requirement drops to three years.

• According to Immigrant Services Officer Dorothy Michaud, with U.S.
Citizenship and Immigration Services in South Portland, candidates for
citizenship must demonstrate they can read, write and speak English
during an interview, and must answer a series of questions about U.S.
history and government. Many candidates enroll in civics classes or
English as Second Language classes to prepare for these requirements,
Michaud said, but the classes are not required.

• Candidates must file an application, along with a $675 filing fee,
to begin the process, which can take anywhere from two to five months,
Michaud said.

For more information, go to www.uscis.gov, or call 1-800-375-5283.


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