Richland resident Tran Van Dung's life is a study in persistence. It's a story that started in Laos in 1975, a volatile time when the nation had been torn by civil war for two decades and the end of the United States' involvement in Vietnam paved the way for a communist takeover in neighboring Laos.
Because of the fighting and chaos, Tran resolved to leave even though he was just 14. The rest of his family stayed behind as he escaped to a refugee camp in Bangkok, Thailand, with just what he could carry.
When his mother sent relatives to bring him home, he refused.
"When I left, I left," he said. "I packed my pack and was gone. It doesn't matter how hard it is."
His trek to the refugee camp was the beginning of an almost 40-year journey that culminated earlier this year with Tran becoming a U.S. citizen.
Tran is one of seven students who earned American citizenship after taking West Side Church's citizenship class over the past year.
The class started in 2006, and director Robin Morris said every student who has gone through the class "passed the citizenship test with flying colors and became an American citizen."
Tran had failed the test twice -- and suffered a stroke -- before enrolling in the Richland church's class and passing his test in March.
He's lived in the U.S. as a legal resident since 1979, after spending four years in that Bangkok refugee camp before he was told he could come to America.
He was 18 years old when he arrived and didn't have much education. He worked odd jobs initially and eventually found steady work in food processing.
He eventually tried to become a citizen and took the test twice just studying on his own. Then two years ago he had his stroke.
He realized that if he wanted to become a citizen, he'd need help. That's when he heard about the West Side Church class.
"I said, 'No way. I have to learn at school,' " Tran said.
So he enrolled in the class and set up four TV sets with DVD players in his home so that he could watch the citizenship materials night and day.
"That was how I studied," he said.
And the third time Tran took his test was the charm. He swore his oath of allegiance to the United States and became a citizen on March 23.
"He doesn't give up," said Irene Johnson, who teaches the church's citizenship class.
Johnson teaches her students a range of topics in American history and government. They have to be prepared to answer any of 100 questions -- and they have to do it orally, demonstrating that they can speak English, she said.
Learning English was a challenge for student Coka Swanson, who came to Richland from Santiago, Chile, about four years ago. She said she didn't speak a word of English when she arrived.
"Zero. Nothing. Nothing," she said when asked if she knew any of the language when she moved to the U.S.
Love brought Swanson to the U.S. She met and married an American man in Chile, and they lived there for almost 20 years before her husband began longing to return home.
Having visited the Tri-Cities and fallen as much in love with the region as she had with her husband, Swanson was excited at the prospect of moving.
"I like the Tri-Cities. I think it's a beautiful city," she said.
She loves the climate and the open spaces -- so different from crowded Santiago.
"In Santiago there are buildings, taxis, traffic -- it's noisy," she said.
Upon arriving, Swanson started learning English, first at Columbia Basin College and then at one of West Side Church's English as a second language classes two years ago. She enrolled in the citizenship class once she had been in the country for the three years necessary to be eligible for citizenship as a spouse.
She also started her own home and office cleaning business.
But her crowning achievement so far was her citizenship ceremony on June 24.
"It was amazing," she said. "A very short ceremony. Good. Very emotional."
Now that she's a citizen, she looks forward to voting.
"I like to be a participant in the democracy here," she said.
Swanson said she recommends the church's citizenship class to anyone who is planning to take the test.
The next class starts Tuesday and meets weekly from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. For information, call Morris at 943-9942.