At joyous Seattle ceremony, 498 become U.S. citizens — and consider what’s ahead

By:  Sarah Wu
Source: The Seattle Times

Hashim Barem memorized the oath of allegiance a decade ago when he served as an interpreter for the U.S. Army in Iraq. During his service from 2007 to 2011, his platoon officer called on him to recite the oath before every mission briefing.


On Wednesday afternoon, Barem recited the oath again, but this time, with 497 other immigrants from 83 countries as part of Seattle’s Fourth of July naturalization ceremony.


Against the backdrop of the Space Needle, the new citizens gathered outside at the Seattle Center’s Fisher Pavilion, with relatives and friends cheering them on from the other side of the fences.


“Everyone made me feel like a U.S. citizen,” Barem said of the troops he worked with. “And today that became a reality.”

As a new citizen, Barem said he hopes to visit his family in Iraq and to apply for a government job overseas, perhaps at a U.S. embassy.


The reality of becoming a citizen not only grants these 498 immigrants new opportunities but also bestows upon them new civic responsibilities. Speakers urged them to exercise their right to vote, but many did not need the reminder, as political issues were already on their minds.


As beautiful saris and American flags fluttered in the summer breeze, U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell and Gov. Jay Inslee — answers to two questions on the civics exam — recognized the contributions of immigrants to the United States and called on them to help shape America’s next chapter.


“Your stories become the American story,” Cantwell said. “Nordstrom and Amazon and Microsoft and Boeing all have benefited from the immigrants who have come to these shores and to our state.”


Speaking about the Trump administration’s travel ban on some majority Muslim countries and policy of separating families at the U.S.-Mexico border, Inslee quoted President Harry Truman: “America was not built on fear. America was built on courage, on imagination, and an unbeatable determination to do the job at hand.”


“That spirit — lies cannot suppress it, deceit cannot discourage it, tweets cannot degrade it,” Inslee said.


Gene Tagaban of the T’akdeintaan Clan, the Raven Freshwater Sockeye Clan from Hoonah, Alaska, told a story about perseverance.


“At one time our children were stolen on this land, but we persevered,” he said. “Although many of the children are still stolen, we will persevere.”


Sitting with their children Akshath, 6, and Avyukth, 2, on their laps, Ajith and Swetha Gande were among several sets of parents to bring their American-born children with them to the ceremony.


National politics motivated them to become citizens, said Ajith Gande, a software engineer at Microsoft.


“We’ll make it for the July 9th registration deadline,” he said, referring to the online voter registration for Washington’s August primary. “As the kids grow up, we hope they will serve society — and us, too, we hope.”


The Gandes stood with 53 other immigrants from India, making up the largest national contingent at the ceremony. There were also large showings from the Philippines, 48; Mexico, 44; China, 37; Canada, 29; and Ethiopia, 22. This Fourth of July naturalization ceremony is the largest in the Pacific Northwest.


After the new citizens received their certificates inside the Armory, scores swarmed the vote-registration tables.


Among them was Emmanuel Guadardo, 27, who immigrated from Mexico 15 years ago. “I’m a citizen, and I can vote now for a better president who’s not racist,” he said.


Guadardo said he is excited to build his life here and to apply for financial aid and scholarships to attend school. He now installs sprinkler systems. “You’re not afraid of being deported,” he said.


His parents, who joined him in celebration, said they hope to become citizens in two years.


Emiliana Aguinaldo Sullera, 89 and from the Philippines, was the oldest to obtain citizenship at the ceremony.


Not far behind was Eleonore Meier, 81, who immigrated from Switzerland 58 years ago. Her husband, from Germany, did not want to become a citizen. “He was scared he wouldn’t pass the test,” she said.


After he died, she decided to apply. Returning to the site of the 1962 World’s Fair, where she had sold Alaskan arts and crafts, she became a citizen of the country she said has always felt like home.


Amy Kelman, who lives near Seattle Center, waved a sign that read “Congratulations! You make America great!”


“It feels like the only way to spend July 4,” she said. “These years and these times, nothing else feels appropriate.”