Abdirisak Dafe felt like he won the lottery Thursday, but his fortune took more than just a few bucks and pure luck.
The 22-year-old Somalian refugee paid nearly $700, studied for several months and passed a background check and two tests to be able to call the United States his country.
His dream was realized along with 49 other Mid-Columbia immigrants when they took the Oath of Allegiance and received naturalization certificates.
“Everybody wants to be a United States citizen,” said Dafe, who lives in Richland. “I have a country. And just to say, ‘I am American,’ it’s actually the greatest feeling in the world to say that for the first time.”
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This class of new citizens was so large that the naturalization ceremony had to be held in the auditorium in Richland’s Federal Building, instead of in the courtroom.
Senior Judge Ed Shea presided over the ceremony, which was part of a nationwide celebration of Constitution Day and Citizenship Day.
The new citizens represent 14 countries: Guatemala, Burma, Ukraine, the Philippines, Moldova, Iraq, Peru, Belarus, Somalia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, India, Iran, Vietnam and Mexico.
Washington state has more than 180,000 legal permanent residents who are eligible for naturalization, but haven’t taken the final step, according to the nonprofit organization OneAmerica.
“Like me, you are now Americans who share the same American dream of freedom, hope, success and good citizenship, as so many immigrants did before us,” said Rich Cummins, president of Columbia Basin College and the event’s guest speaker.
“As you become new citizens, you are contributing a wealth of ideas, knowledge, experiences and cultural practices to your new country,” he added.
“In fact, it is this cultural diversity that made this country what it is today: a vibrant, free and prosperous society that continues to be a favorite destination for so many people around the world who see a refuge as the result of hardship or simply a desire to relocate to seek a better life.”
Cummins spoke of how his ancestors migrated from Ireland and Scotland, and how one great uncle was born in a London jail when the family was incarcerated as they sought to make passage through England to the United States.
Three generations later, the family produced a college president. That is what’s great about America, he said — “The promise that we can have good lives through hard work, but that our children can do even better.”
Dafe was born in Kenya but his family is from Somalia, he said. After his father died, his mother struggled to care for her five children and knew the only way to survive was to emigrate to the United States.
Seven years later, Dafe followed the example set by his mother and two sisters and embraced his adopted country by becoming a citizen.
“It’s hard. I really know it’s hard to do this, do the paperwork and stuff, but once you’ve finished it you feel great,” he said. “If you work for it, you feel successful and you feel like you made it.”
The 2013 Hanford High School graduate is working two jobs and has taken classes at Columbia Basin College.
He accidentally went to Yakima on Thursday, since some of the application process is completed there through the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services field office. So when Dafe and another immigrant arrived late in Richland, Senior Immigration Officer Suzanne Weddle held a small swearing-in ceremony for them.
Saw Htoo Htoo Moses came to the Tri-Cities as a Burmese refugee six years ago. As of Thursday, a happy Moses and his wife, Su Su, can call themselves Americans.
“Many people dream to become a citizen,” he said. “This was my dream too.”
Richland High School teacher Nick White brought his U.S. Government class to watch the ceremony.
“We welcome you into our community and our country,” said White, who thanked the new citizens for sharing their experience with his students and invited them to speak in his classroom about the process.
The citizens had the opportunity to register to vote with Benton County Auditor Brenda Chilton, Franklin County Auditor Matt Beaton and the League of Women Voters of Benton and Franklin Counties.
The Friends of the American Revolution passed out flag pins, and the Columbia River Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution put on the reception.
Want to see if you can pass the civics portion of the naturalization test? Applicants are asked up to 10 questions at random from the list of 100, and must answer six correctly. They get two chances to pass per application.
What: Free legal clinic for eligible legal permanent residents to get help applying for citizenship
When: Saturday, Sept. 19, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Where: Columbia Basin College, Center for Career & Technical Education, 2600 N. 20th Ave., Pasco
Organized by the Washington New Americans program and the Washington Chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association