The only English phrase Syrian immigrant Manoushak Issa knows is “God bless America.”
The 78-year-old Fresno resident got to say those words on Tuesday when she was among 699 people from across the Valley sworn in as United States citizens during a naturalization ceremony at the Fresno Convention Center’s Valdez Hall.
The new citizens came from 51 countries, with more than 400 from Mexico, 84 from India and 36 from the Philippines. Twenty came from three of the Muslim-majority countries on President Donald Trump’s immigrant ban list – Syria, Iran and Yemen.
A video message from the president is usually played at every indoor naturalization ceremony, but there was no video Tuesday because Trump has not recorded a speech for the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Office to use yet, a spokeswoman said. That’s not unusual – it took a few months before the office received former President Barack Obama’s speech, she said.
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The first president to record a speech for use at naturalization ceremonies was President George W. Bush.
Issa has lived in the U.S. for 11 years and has waited patiently for her daughter, Ayda Hagopian, to help her apply for citizenship.
“I said, ‘Mom, you don’t know any English,’ ” Hagopian said. “She said it doesn’t matter … I have to make her dream come true.”
You just feel like you are free.
The family is Armenian but lived in Syria most of their lives. When Hagopian got married more than a decade ago, she joined her husband who was living and working in the U.S. Her mother followed a few years later.
They escaped Syria before civil war wrecked the country and long before Trump issued a travel ban on visitors and refugees from seven Muslim countries – Iraq, Sudan, Syria, Iran, Libya, Somalia and Yemen. He has since removed Iraq from the list.
Don’t believe all the reports that make Syrians out to be bad, Hagopian said, adding that “they are a peaceful people.” It’s important to check the background of anyone who might be a threat to the country, but you can’t ban entry for everybody, she said. “It’s hurtful.”
Here, in America, you have a better life and better opportunities.
Rewa Kamel, 27, of Bakersfield was all smiles while waiting in line after the ceremony to register to vote. “I’m so excited,” the Syrian immigrant said as her son, Issa Abuzalan, 3 1/2 tugged at her pants. After three years of waiting for her citizenship to become official, “you just feel like you are free,” she said.
Kamel came to the United States in 2012 to join her husband, who is a dentist in Mission Viejo. Her parents live in Turkey and she wants to travel and see them. “People here are nice, but you need your family too,” she said.
The Syrian civil war made life difficult, the mother of two said. “You can’t go anywhere, you can’t find a safe place. Here, in America, you have a better life and better opportunities.”