Yuliya Lobets was 9 years old when her parents moved her and her brothers to Spanaway, because it just wasn’t safe to live in Belarus.
They were a poor family living in the danger zone around Chernobyl, the site of the 1986 nuclear disaster that contaminated thousands of square miles.
“Living there wasn’t healthy,” said Lobets, now 20 and a student at Tacoma Community College who also works for Delta Air Lines. “My parents wanted better for us.”
On Saturday, Lobets was one of 83 people who became American citizens at a ceremony at Mount Tahoma High School. It was the fourth annual ceremony held in Pierce County for South Sound residents, who before that would have to travel to Seattle to be sworn in.
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The ceremony is planned by the Pierce County Auditor’s Office, with help and donations from local partners. Child care was provided by volunteers from Pierce County 4-H, who had about 10 teenagers inviting dozens of small children to play while their families marked an exciting but solemn occasion.
Each year, about 680,000 immigrants earn citizenship through naturalization. It’s a challenging and lengthy process involving forms, tests and interviews. Washington is one of 10 states where almost three-quarters of all immigrants become naturalized citizens.
After speeches and patriotic videos Saturday, it was time for the oath. These 83 immigrants from 31 countries stood, most holding a small American flag, and swore their allegiance to the United States. One by one, a federal government official called their names so each person could receive a certificate of naturalization.
Rebka Belete approached the stage with her 3-year-old daughter, Eden. Belete’s friend was ready to hold Eden while her mother was recognized, but Eden had different ideas.
“She said she wanted to walk with me,” said Belete, who is from Ethiopia.
So she did. Mother and daughter, both dressed in bright red, each shook hands with the on-stage dignitaries. Eden then introduced her small Minnie Mouse doll, who also received a handshake.
Moses Wambui moved to Federal Way from Kenya several years ago. He runs his own business, caring for elderly people in his home. Though he’s well-established, he said all the days after Saturday will be markedly different.
“I can vote now, which means in a small way I can influence how policies are made and how my community is run,” he said. “It means a great deal. Now I am an American.”