In emotional `dream come true,' 201 become U.S. citizens

NEIGHBORS

June 28, 2000|By Heather Tepe | Heather Tepe,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

ON SATURDAY, 201 people from countries all over the world became U.S. citizens at a Naturalization Ceremony held at Wilde Lake Interfaith Center in west Columbia.

Most waved small American flags and wore beaming smiles as they repeated the Oath of Citizenship and were sworn in by Judge Lenore R. Gelfman in what was an emotional ceremony for many of our newest citizens.

"I'm so happy to become a U.S. citizen. It's like a dream come true for me," said Belinda Harris, a native of the Philippines. She immigrated to the United States nine years ago. "I came looking for better opportunities and freedom," she said.

Those are some of the same reasons Genet Fekede wanted to come here. Originally from Ethiopia, Fekede said she wanted her son, Berekete Senthuy, 13, to have the advantages of an American education and access to technology. Her husband, Zewdu Fekede, became a U.S. citizen in 1992.

According to Edward Lingelbach of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, "You have to be a lawful, permanent resident of the United States for five years before applying for citizenship." Candidates must demonstrate good moral character, establish an attachment to the principals of the U.S. Constitution, have a clean police record and demonstrate a knowledge of American history and English. There is a fee of $250 for fingerprinting and application processing.

"Every one of you has a story," said keynote speaker Helen Szabyla, president of the board of directors for the Foreign-born Information and Referral Network (FIRN) in Columbia. FIRN is a nonprofit organization assisting immigrants and refugees with services such as health care, housing, employment, immigration law and instruction in English as a second language.

During her address, Szabyla shared her memories of escaping Hungary in 1956 at the age of 4 with her family.

"At one point, I was separated from my parents and I was in the back of a truck," she said. "The truck had little sides with a canvas that came over the top that flapped in the wind as it was going along the road. It was snowing outside. I was sitting on the one knapsack that we had. I had been told that I could not make a sound or we would be captured. I was terrified that I would fall out of the truck, and nobody would know that I had fallen out, and no one would hear me."

Szabyla's family had been captured on two previous attempts to escape Hungary. Their third effort was successful. Although she and her family first immigrated to Canada, they moved to the United States in 1963. But she didn't become a U.S. citizen until 1984.

"I really wanted to vote," Szabyla said. "I wanted to be part of the system. I wanted my voice heard. Until I could vote, I was not a fully participating member of this society."

Szabyla said that she has not missed the opportunity to vote in any election since she became a U.S. citizen. She lives in Wilde Lake with her husband, Chuck Dann, and son, Alex Meiners. Her daughter, Anna, 23, a graduate of Wilde Lake High School, lives in Hollywood, Calif.

Szabyla said she is particularly proud that her son, Alex, 18, was an election judge in March. Szabyla encouraged the newly sworn-in citizens to register and exercise their right to vote.

"Together, we make the United States," she said.

Many of the participants in Saturday's ceremony followed Szabyla's advice and lined up at voter registration tables in the lobby of the interfaith center.

FIRN has sponsored the ceremony with the Baltimore district office of INS for the past five years. According to Gary Hughes, executive director of FIRN, the organization provides services to nearly 2,000 immigrants each year.

"The immigrant population is the fastest-growing population in the United States," Szabyla said. "That's where our future is. It always has been. Depending upon how the first few years of an immigrant or refugee's life in the United States goes colors their whole vision of what the United States is all about."

For Belinda Harris, the experience of becoming an American citizen has been a positive one. Her ex-husband, Larry Harris, attended the ceremony to see Belinda become a citizen. Larry was a Marine guard at American embassies abroad. "It gives you a different outlook on this country when you've been overseas and lived in different cultures," he said. "I would say this is the best country in the world."

"Definitely," agreed Belinda. "It is the best country in the world."

FIRN's offices are at 5999 Harpers Farm Road, Suite E-200, in Columbia.

Information: 410-992-1923.

Bridge class

The Town Center Community Association is offering Bridge for the Absolute Beginner on Thursdays from July 20 through Aug. 24. The class will meet from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. at Historic Oakland.

Expert teacher Linda Brauer will cover bridge basics: vocabulary, opening bids, overcalls, doubles and more. "It's for beginners or those who want to refresh and learn some new conventions as well," Brauer said.

Information: 410-730-4744.

Road painting

The Department of Public Works maintains more than 921 miles of county roads. During the next few months, the department will be painting crosswalks and yellow and white stripes along countyroads.

Public Works suggests following the speed limit to allow ample braking time when a paint truck is encountered.

Never cross over the newly painted lines or pass the paint truck because the paint is difficult to remove from vehicles.

Information: Betsy McMillion, public education coordinator for the Department of Public Works customer service, 410-313-3406.

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