In 2012, Benish Irfan and her young children left behind everything they knew in Lahore, Pakistan. They traveled more than 7,000 miles to join Irfan's husband, an American citizen, stepping off the plane in a country where Irfan couldn't speak the language.
The family found a home in Ellicott City so their children could attend the county's public schools. Irfan, who has a master's degree in education, raises her three young children while working part-time as a cashier at Walmart, where she said she is standing for four hours at a time. She learned English without taking a class. Her husband works as a cab driver.
"Life's not easy," Irfan said. But on the morning of July 8, a smile spread across her face as she spoke — after five years, she was becoming an American citizen.
The Saturday after the Fourth of July, 20 Maryland residents raised their right hands and swore allegiance to the United States. Held at Howard Community College in Columbia, the naturalization ceremony was the proud end of a long journey for the new Americans, who sang their new country's praises.
"There is peace, there is justice," Irfan said after being naturalized. "Here, you can feel yourself safe."
Candidates for naturalization must meet a series of strict requirements, according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services website. They must have been legal permanent residents for at least five years, or three if married to a citizen. In most circumstances, they must pass an oral test, proving that they know basic English and U.S. history. They must have "good moral character" and agree to perform military or civilian service if drafted.
USCIS performs about 20,000 naturalizations a year from the Baltimore district office, which encompasses all of Maryland, according to James McKinney, a regional spokesperson.
The candidates at the Columbia ceremony came from 14 countries across four continents, as near as the Dominican Republic and as far as Bangladesh. Some were in their 20s and documented the ceremony with their iPhones; others were older than 70, with wizened faces that creased with joy as they pledged their allegiance to the country that had been home for decades.
"My mom, she been waiting so long," said Ellman Tekle, whose mother, Tsege Ageorgis, was naturalized on Saturday, 23 years after she immigrated to the U.S. from Eritrea, a northeast African country, in 1994.
The family, who live in Bowie, came for opportunities they could not get in Eritrea, Tekle said, including in education, business and raising children. At the ceremony, Ageorgis was surrounded by six family members spanning multiple generations.
The ceremony was hosted by the Foreign-Born Information and Referral Network, or FIRN, a Howard County nonprofit that connects immigrants to community resources and provides assistance such as translation and legal services.
USCIS normally conducts its own large naturalization ceremonies, but for the last five years FIRN has volunteered to host a small ceremony close to the Fourth of July.
"It's a huge accomplishment for a lot of people when they become naturalized," said Meredith Hochman, FIRN's outreach coordinator. "For a lot of folks, it's not been an easy journey, and it's been a long time coming. They've had to put in a lot of time and effort to be where they are. This is a little bit special, we want to do that for them."
"It's a culmination of the work we do," said Hector Garcia, FIRN's director. "To see the joy in individuals. ... They still believe in the American dream."
Helping these dreamers has become more difficult lately, Garcia said, as political scrutiny of immigration has grown. He said he gets 50 phone calls a day from immigrants who need help or advice, as well as "a little bit of hate mail every once in a while."
Much of FIRN's work involves guiding immigrants through the citizenship application process.
"So, we of course celebrate when we get to the last step and they are sworn in," Garcia said.
The celebration this year included food, patriotic decorations and a high school student and recent graduate, both dressed as the Statue of Liberty, posing for pictures with candidates and their families. Women from the Daughters of the American Revolution passed out red gift bags with pocket Constitutions, candy and American flags for the new citizens to wave after the oath.
"It's an answered prayer for all of us," said Ella Wong, of Odenton, who came to the U.S. from the Philippines in 2012 to give her children opportunities for education and work, which she said were scarce in her home country.
Wong applied for a visa after working for the U.S. embassy in Manila for 29 years. A broadcast engineer by training, she was jobless her first six months in the U.S., and then worked at McDonald's so she would have a U.S. job on her resume. She now works as a contractor at Fort Meade, but hopes to get a direct government job now that she is a citizen.
Like many of the candidates, the ceremony was emotional for Wong.
"I got some tears, but I control myself," she said afterward. "Memories start to come to you."
Many of the soon-to-be citizens wiped away tears when, during the ceremony, a video called "Faces of America" was shown. Set to a patriotic soundtrack, the video flashed through photos of immigrants from the early 20th century disembarking ships on Ellis Island, through to modern-day naturalization ceremonies.
The candidates were solemn as the words emblazoned on the Statue of Liberty appeared on the screen: "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free."
After the video ended, Gregory Collett, the USCIS district director and an Ellicott City resident, instructed the candidates to raise their right hands, and he led them in the oath that would officially make them American citizens.
"So help me God," the oath ended, and 20 American faces broke into wide smiles.
Similar to a graduation ceremony, someone called out each new citizen's name — stumbling through difficult pronunciations — calling them up to the stage to receive their certificates of citizenship. Some teetered in their best high heels; others puffed their chests in suits and ties. One woman wore a dress inscribed with the words: "Be your own kind of beautiful." Some wore traditional clothing or glittering headscarves. Each looked different, but all of them beamed.
The new citizens shook hands down a line of FIRN and USCIS officials as well as local government officials, who spoke at the ceremony, urging the new Americans to vote and become engaged in the community.
"Make your voices heard," County Executive Allan Kittleman said in a speech before the oath, just as a baby in the audience began to wail. "Yes, make your voices heard!" he said again to laughter.
To amplify those voices, women from the League of Women Voters stood outside the ceremony, as they do every year, to register people to vote. Many new citizens, including Irfan, went straight to the voter registration booth before getting in line for a heavily decorated, star-spangled breakfast table nearby.
"It's nice to have people who are eager," said Katherine Rose, who was passing out voter registration forms. She said that she often goes to high schools to register new 18-year-olds, and that those the most interested in voting are always the children of immigrants.
In addition to voting, many of the new citizens said they were looking forward to getting U.S. passports and being able to travel — whether on vacation or to visit family.
"I think everybody miss the place they grew up," Irfan said. She hopes to visit family members in Pakistan someday; she has not been back since arriving in the U.S. five years ago. Ageorgis, from Eritrea, hopes to visit a daughter who lives in Canada.
Despite the benefits of being able to travel and vote, however, many of the new citizens were simply happy to make real what they already felt: They are Americans.
"It's a very nice feeling after so many years," said Maria Dellamora, who immigrated to North Bethesda in 2007 after traveling back and forth from Brazil since living in the D.C. area with her parents in the 1960s. Dellamora, 70, who now drives with Uber and Lyft, said that after working at the U.S. embassy in Brazil for 37 years, moving to the U.S. felt like coming home.
"It makes me believe in reincarnation," said Yakov Boyko, of Adelphi, who said after the ceremony that he had always been drawn to books about the U.S. as a child growing up in Russia. "I couldn't live in Europe. There's an invisible thing that's missing," he said, praising America not just as a country, but as an idea.
"America is a great country, I love it," Irfan said, adding that her children "are safe here. Their future is safe."