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YARMOUTH — Khadija Ali said she’ll remember Dec. 7, 2017, forever as the best day of her life.
Ali emigrated to Maine from Somalia with her husband, Farah, 10 years ago.
Last week, she was one of 31 candidates from 22 countries to become U.S. citizens at the first naturalization ceremony ever held at Yarmouth High School.
Before swearing their allegiance to the U.S., the candidates from across the globe were asked to stand up according to their country of origin and raise their right hand. Represented were countries as near as Canada and as far as the Philippines, including Brazil, Russia, Iraq, Rwanda and the Netherlands.
When Ireland was called, Sylvia Deschaine rose from her seat.
Deschaine – the administrative assistant at Bates College’s Carnegie Science Machine Shop – moved to the U.S. from Ireland 30 years ago to be with her husband Robert, a U.S. Navy pilot. They and their 17-year-old daughter, Keely, live in Sabattus.
“People say ‘you’re from here,’ but you’re really not from here until you’re (a citizen),” Deschaine said. “The people I dealt with through the whole emigration process were friendly, helpful, and so accommodating. It was unbelievable.”
The public ceremony, the brainchild of YHS junior Paige Reinfelder, was held in the school auditorium and was live-streamed to an overflow crowd of viewers in the cafeteria. Among those in attendance were students, town officials and state Sen. Cathy Breen, D-Falmouth.
“Maine is lucky to have you,” Breen told the candidates sitting before her, urging them to take advantage of every right they have as U.S. citizens.
“Immigrants can and will play a starring role in (Maine’s) future,” she said.
Event planning was a collaborative effort by Reinfelder, faculty adviser Deborah Johansen, the school Civil Rights Team, administrators, Portland Adult Education and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
Civil Rights Team member Zach Mogul-Campbell said he was not expecting to see such a large turnout.
“You don’t see this kind of thing very often, especially in high school,” Mogul-Campbell said, adding that this was the first citizenship ceremony he’d ever attended.
Superintendent of Schools Andrew Dolloff delivered the ceremony’s keynote speech – an opportunity he said left him “humbled” and “honored.”
“I am supremely unqualified to understand what it means to become a citizen of the United States, for I was born into it,” Dolloff said. “Unless you are of Native American descent, each of us witnessing today’s ceremony is here today as the result of one immigrant who had the desire, the dream and the determination to make a new life for himself or herself.”
Among those with the desire, dream, and determination was Guy Auclair. Auclair moved to Maine from Quebec City, Canada, nine years ago and now owns a beauty salon, Eau Clair Hair Care, in Scarborough.
Charlotte Agell also took the stage to deliver a few remarks. Agell is a novelist and teacher in the gifted and talented language arts program at Harrison Middle School.
Between 1873 and 1992, people in Maine were required to travel to Boston for naturalization ceremonies. On Feb. 21, 1992, after emigrating from Sweden as a teenager, Agell was the first immigrant to swear her allegiance to the U.S. in the state of Maine.
“I get all choked up when I think of how I felt on that day,” Agell said. “I still remember to this day what a privilege it was and still feels like.”
Reinfelder said she was touched to see what the ceremony meant to candidates and hopes more like it will take place in Yarmouth.
“We may not always have the same beliefs (and) we may not speak the same language, but we are united in our fundamental belief that each person should be treated fairly and with dignity and have equal opportunities,” Reinfelder said. “We can all be brought closer in ceremonies just like this one as we expand our understanding of the immigrant experience.”
Candidates for citizenship recite the Oath of Allegiance at Yarmouth’s first naturalization ceremony, Dec. 8 at Yarmouth High School.
New U.S. citizen Faysal Flayyih, right, with Yarmouth School Superintendent Andrew Dolloff at Yarmouth High School after the town played host to a naturalization ceremony Dec. 8. Flayyih emigrated to Westbrook from Kuwait eight years ago.