20 immigrants naturalized at federal court in Richland

By Tyler Richardson, Tri-City HeraldMarch 14, 2013 

Yussef Omar's journey to America took him through war-torn Somalia and a refugee camp in Kenya.

Tintshwethi-Ha spent 14 years in a Burmese prison for speaking out against the government.

Thursday, both men and 18 other people became American citizens after a naturalization ceremony at federal court in Richland.

Family and friends snapped pictures as Senior District Judge Edward Shea handed each person a certificate, officially putting a stamp on their citizenship.

"Each one of you has a special story and that story is now a part of the family lore," Shea told the group.

The 20 new citizens represented 12 different countries, including Cuba, Bangladesh, Mexico and the Ukraine. Each person recited the Pledge of Allegiance and the Oath of Allegiance, vowing to support and defend the Constitution.

The ceremony was even more meaningful to Ha and his family, because Ha's daughter Khin Phyu, 26, and son Thiha Swe, 24, also received their citizenship. The family has been living in America for the past six years after moving from Thailand.

Phyu and Swe, who both work at the Kennewick Life Care Center, said they were proud of everything their father has overcome to become an American citizen. He was a politician in Burma for 10 years before being thrown into prison by the government for leading a campaign for democracy in his native country.

As Ha reflected on his time in prison and the freedom he now experiences, it was clear how much the American flag he held in his left hand means to him.

"I am very happy for my U.S. citizenship," he said. "I would like to help build a university for our children. We need more opportunities for our children. We can get that here."

The diverse group listened intently to Shea throughout the brief ceremony as he challenged them to reflect on their journey to the United States and the sacrifices it took to get here.

Omar, a 21-year-old who came to the U.S. five years ago from the refugee camp, said his family fled Somalia in 1990 to get away from the violence and he grew up in a refugee camp. His father worked around the clock at the camp handing out food to pay for his school.

"For freedom we moved to Kenya," he said.

Comparing life in the refugee camp to the freedom in America, Omar gets a sheepish grin on his face as he playfully shakes his head.

"A lot more here," he said.

Omar's goal is to earn his degree -- he is a student at Columbia Basin College -- and support his family.

Ha and his family gathered in the center of the courtroom after the ceremony. They passed flags and posed for pictures while speaking about the new opportunities open to them.

"We are very proud," Phyu said. "Very happy to be an American citizen."

w Tyler Richardson: 582-1556; trichardson@tricityherald.com; Twitter: @Ty_richardson

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