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On Friday, 73 immigrants from 39 countries, ranging from Afghanistan to Venezuela, celebrated America’s birthday by being sworn in as U.S. citizens.
The naturalization ceremony at Monticello, the former home of Thomas Jefferson, in Charlottesville, Virginia, has been an Independence Day tradition for 52 years. NBC News asked America’s newest citizens, all Virginia residents, about their journeys to citizenship and hopes for the future, starting with Helena Rocha, above, from Portugal.
Chicken parmesan and criminology are among things Helena Rocha has discovered since emigrating here as a child eight years ago. Rocha, 19, serves in the U.S. Army and is aspiring to be an FBI agent. "I feel like I needed to become a U.S. citizen because I'm serving for this country," she said. The trilingual native of Portugal - she speaks English, Portuguese and Spanish - hopes to someday travel throughout Europe to experience the cultures there, just as she has immersed herself in the melting pot that is America. "In Europe, you have a country, and they have their different culture. But here in the States, you have cultures from all over the world."
Haibo Dong from China.
The 'ordinary American life' - a career, house and family - is more than enough for Haibo Dong, who emigrated from China 18 years ago. Weekends come with trips to a nearby park, and his work as a professor allows him to open his lab for undergraduate and high school students to learn. It's been more than a decade since he last visited China, but he may plan a trip in coming years. U.S. citizenship will solidify his role in the country he now considers home, he says, allowing him to vote and serve as a juror like his wife who was also recently naturalized. "We want to be more involved in the community," he said.
Shoeab Ammar and his wife Hadija Nassar, from Iraq.
Ammar spent 42 days holed up in his basement in Kuwait during the Gulf War. He later moved to Baghdad, where in 2003, "war came again." During the two wars, Ammar said the couple's two daughters moved to Jordan, where Ammar and Nassar were unable to visit them. Ammar said he got work as a translator for the US Army, which led to his emigration. Now that they have US citizenship, the couple hopes to travel to Jordan to reunite with their daughters. "Now I am sure that I am a free person. I want to thank all 300 million people in America."
Latchmie Seenath from Trinidad and Tobago.
Life in the United States has taught Latchmie Seenath the value of hard work and opportunity. Seenath, 47, immigrated from Trinidad and Tobago 17 years ago as a single father. "I used to work harder in my country but never reached anywhere," he said. He's now self-employed in window tinting, travelling to cities from Chicago to Washington D.C., and supporting his 16-year-old son. When he returned to Trinidad shortly after leaving, he realized it wasn't his home anymore, thinking he couldn't wait to get back to the States. "I used to never understand what [freedom] was until I lived here and went back there," he said. "I'm going to live and die here."
I-Jen Fang from Taiwan.
A percussion audition brought I-Jen Fang to college in America in 1995 as a 15-year-old from Taiwan. Fang, now 34, performs in a symphony and has lived in the United States for more than half her life. She wanted to become a citizen like her husband, who is American, and two-year-old son. Living in Virginia where everything is "wide and open" compared to Taiwan, Fang remembers the patience she encountered among people she met after arriving here, who didn't look down on her as she acclimated and smoothed out her broken English. For others seeking naturalization, she offered advice: "Just follow the rules."
Jekaterina "Katyusha" Koldajeva-Fogg from Lithuania.
Romance kept Katyusha Koldajeva-Fogg in America after she graduated from college in San Francisco. Before starting her studies, Koldajeva-Fogg, now 41, and her then-fiance road tripped from New York to Maine, absorbing the autumn scenery, hiking, whale-watching and meeting strangers who welcomed her. "It was heaven," she said. Once she completed her degree, she faced a decision: go back to Lithuania, or be with the love of her life. "What was I supposed to do?" she said. As her years in the States added up, her ties to Lithuania faded. "I realized that it's not my home anymore," she said. It's now been 15 years, the couple has two children and Koldajeva-Fogg teaches subjects ranging from Russian to yoga to young children.
A crowd of more than two thousand people attends the naturalization ceremony at Monticello, the mountaintop home Thomas Jefferson designed for himself in Virginia.
The group reacts to hearing that they're now officially US citizens.
Following the naturalization ceremony, Thomas Jefferson's home was opened to visitors. Here, in Monticello's dining room, the small door open on the left side of the fireplace reveals the wine elevator Jefferson designed to bring bottles up from his cellar. Jefferson used to import barrels of wine from France and then bottle them at his estate.
A vegetable garden cultivated to resemble the one operating in Jefferson's day sits above a sweeping view to the south of Monticello.