‘The place that changed me’: Cumberland ceremony enfranchises new Americans

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CUMBERLAND — A nation of immigrants added 31 new American citizens at a naturalization ceremony Friday, April 7, at Greely Middle School.

The school, which has held similar events in years past, invited U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to deliver the oath of allegiance to candidates from 22 countries who were seated by the stage in the packed gym.

Among them were Marine Brown of Cumberland, formerly of France, and Witthaya Nimsuwan – formerly of Thailand – who has been in the U.S. a few years and built a house in Falmouth with his husband last August.

Brown’s mother was French, and her father Syrian. She has lived in the country 20 years, is married and has three children educated in School Administrative District 51.

The new presidential administration prompted Brown to naturalize, she said.

“Having been born in Syria, and being a French citizen, I just felt like (it would be a good idea),” Brown said. “My kids are very, very excited. For me, it feels like something I should have done decades ago.”

Both she and Nimsuwan praised the ease with which they were able to work through the citizenship process.

Marrying an American allowed Nimsuwan to apply for citizenship, he noted.

“This is something that you really never forget,” SAD 51 Superintendent Jeff Porter said during the ceremony. “… We are one nation of people, from many backgrounds.”

He recalled his own immigrant ancestors, including six Pilgrims who arrived on the Mayflower in 1620.

“We’re all immigrants to this land,” Porter said. “My ancestors came here seeking a new land and new life. They came here in search of freedom, they came here in search of hope.”

“Your new country needs your help,” he told those being naturalized. “America’s strength does not lie in its military. It does not lie in its economy. It lies in the hearts and the minds of its people. People like you, people like me.”

Ekhlas Ahmed, the ceremony’s keynote speaker, could not speak any English when she arrived in Maine as a war refugee from Darfur, Sudan. Her family started with no food, no car, and no money.

Now a decade later, she teaches English at Casco Bay High School in Portland, from which she graduated in 2009, and coordinates the Make it Happen! program, which readies multilingual students for college.

In two years Ahmed went from struggling to learn the alphabet, and living in virtual silence among English speakers, to finding “a voice that I use today to speak and advocate for myself, and advocate for many who need it,” she said.

Leaving Sudan was one of the toughest things she ever had to do, Ahmed told the audience.

“I want to be the leader that I’ve always imagined, and rise beyond the violence and poverty of my past,” she said. “I never in my wildest dreams thought that I would call the United States my home. … But now that I’ve been here more than 10 years, I value it more than ever. … It is the place that changed me. The place that made me a better person.”

Alex Lear can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 113 or alear@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @learics.

Marine Brown of Cumberland, left, and Witthaya Nimsuwan of Falmouth were among 31 people naturalized as American citizens April 7 at Greely Middle School in Cumberland.

Urbano Arcia plays with a flag and balloons during a naturalization ceremony held at Greely Middle School in Cumberland April 7. His mother, Polinn Men, was one of 31 people who took the oath of allegiance. Now of South Portland, she was originally from Cambodia.

Ekhlas Ahmed, whose family left war-torn Sudan and settled in Portland a decade ago, was the keynote speaker at Friday’s naturalization ceremony in Cumberland.

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A Maine native and Colby College graduate, Alex has been covering coastal communities since 2001, and currently handles Bath, Topsham, Cumberland, and North Yarmouth. He and his wife, Lauren, live in the Portland area, and Alex recently released his third album of original music.