Recalling his first day in the United States as a Soviet Jewish refugee in 1979, Ilya Kargman says, "I felt like an American. I felt free." Yesterday Mr. Kargman, 54, an Owings Mills painting contractor, made it official: He became a U.S. citizen in a brief ceremony on the foredeck of the frigate Constellation. Twenty-three refugees from eight countries -- Afghanistan, Cambodia, Ethiopia, Hungary, Iran, Poland, the former Soviet Union and Vietnam -- were naturalized in the shadow of Harborplace to commemorate International Refugee Day. Mr. Kargman, his wife, Larisa, and their 21-year-old daughter, Milana, stood in the front row and took the oath to "absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state or sovereignty." They said the Pledge of Allegiance, listened to brief speeches by other immigrants about American opportunity, and received certificates of naturalization from federal officials. That was it. They were Americans. "Finally," said the Kargmans' son, Dimitry, 28, who became a citizen five years ago. Nearly 6,000 immigrants are naturalized every year in Maryland, said Susan K. Arroyo, a U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service official. To be eligible, immigrants must be legal permanent residents of the United States for five years (three years if married to a U.S. citizen); demonstrate "good moral character;" be able to speak, read and write English; and pass a test on U.S. government and history. More than 2,000 immigrants a year come to Maryland as refugees -- people deemed persecuted in their home countries. The bulk of refugees came to Maryland last year from the former Soviet Union and Vietnam, including the Amerasian children of U.S. servicemen. The talk aboard the Constellation yesterday was of the American Dream. David Nairoo, an Iranian-born entrepreneur, told the new citizens that "you can be anything you want to be. Whatever you set your mind to do, you can achieve -- for yourself, for your children." Larisa Kargman recalled the Black Sea vacation during which her husband insisted that the family emigrate to the United States from its home in Kiev, Ukraine. "It was crazy, go to America, go to America," she said. "I always trusted him very much, and he said go, so we went. And see -- he did right." Mr. Kargman arrived in the United States knowing "two words of English -- yes and no." He found work as a factory mechanic, and Mrs. Kargman became a manicurist. The children studied. Dimitry earned a degree from the University of Maryland. Milana studies at Towson State University and plans to be a pharmacist. Mr. Kargman started a painting and paperhanging business. Dimitry joined his father in the company after graduation. They now have about 10 employees, and the company just finished painting a huge new Home Depot store on Route 40 in Catonsville. "Every morning I tell God, 'Thank you for America,' " Mr. Kargman said. Long Thuy Nguyen, 19, and his family were Vietnamese boat people. Mr. Nguyen's parents, peasants from a village near Saigon, couldn't raise their five children in the economic chaos of postwar Vietnam. After six months in a Malaysian refugee camp, the family arrived in the United States in 1979, when Mr. Nguyen was 7. The Nguyens settled in Oxon Hill, Prince George's County. The parents worked two jobs each, and their children excelled at their studies. Mr. Nguyen won a scholarship to a prestigious Massachusetts prep school. Now the former Vietnamese boat person is a freshman in Georgetown University's foreign service school. "My parents are happy," he said. "Their reason to come to America was to give us opportunity. Now they're seeing we're getting college educations. They worked hard for us, and it looks like it's paying off."