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Welcome to America

The Baltimore Sun

They escaped civil wars and battled loneliness. Some came with families and others alone. For some, America is the only country they know, and others still pine for the family and friends they left behind.

They came from 31 countries - from places such as Liberia, Pakistan, Burma, Australia, Spain, Cambodia, El Salvador, Iran, Peru, South Korea - and they stood together and swore to be true and faithful to the Constitution.

Fifty new Americans, old and young, were sworn in yesterday morning on the patio at the historic Annapolis home of William Paca, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, in a short ceremony that marked the final, emotional step in their long path to citizenship.

"I never thought I would be here today," said Boyonnoh Edna Tarpeh, 39, who survived the Liberian civil war and came to this country in 2001 as a refugee.

"It's an opportunity for a new life. Those of us who have a shattered dream, this could be a road for them to follow for their dreams to come true.

"To see people from all over the world become one, under one roof, that is exciting," she said.

After the All Children's Chorus of Annapolis sang "The Star-Spangled Banner," Kevin McGuire, director of state Department of Human Resource's Family Investment Administration, told a standing-room-only crowd of more than 100: "We're a country that is an unfinished work, and you're part of the work that is to come."

Pat Hatch, the program manager for DHR's Office for New Americans, choked up, for a moment, while she addressed the group.

"Today, America's past meets America's future, and that's you," she said.

"So much of the future is in your hands."

She urged the citizenship candidates to take their right to vote very seriously. Listen to C-Span, attend candidates' forums and make informed decisions for yourselves, she said.

"Democracy is not a spectator sport," Hatch said.

Then one by one, the men and women stood as the names of their natives countries were read from a long list by a representative of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

With hands raised, they took the oath of allegiance in unison and while the audience cheered - and friends and family ran in close for photographs - the new citizens received a certificate and a little American flag.

"I'm happy! I can't express it. ... Look at my face," said Seifu Boku, smiling broadly. An aircraft mechanic from Rockville, he emigrated from Ethiopia five years ago because, "you know, it's America. You have every opportunity over here."

Boku, 35, had not yet told his family in Ethiopia about his naturalization, but had plans to buy a phone card and call them as soon as he left.

"It's the first day of - I can say my birthday," he said. "I'm going to surprise them."

The League of Women Voters had set up a booth in the back of the tent so the 50 men and women could register to vote after the ceremony, and just about all of them picked up forms, including Sheel Chand, 36, who immediately filled his out.

"I'm going to vote in every election. ... Definitely, America is the greatest country in the world," he said."Voting is the biggest thing for me," said Natasha Bowlds, 34, who moved from Australia when she was 2. "You have the privilege to vote, and it's not something people in a lot of countries have."

Bowlds came with a cluster of supporters, including her parents and three children, and grinned through the entire ceremony. Afterward, her friends thrust roses, balloons, and a red, white and blue shirt into her hands. The striped, starred shirt was too big, but she put it on anyway and beamed for the cameras.

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