It was muggy and grey on Tuesday morning at the South Florida Fair in West Palm Beach when hundreds of people started lining up outside Gate Two. Men, women and children arrived around 10 a.m. to witness a meaningful celebration that will forever change their lives: the U.S. citizenship ceremony.
By noon, everyone was inside the big white tent, drenching in sweat and using flyers as personals fans. But everyone kept their cool as they sat in front of the main stage with red, white and blue lights shining in their faces.
More than 500 people from more than 65 countries carried small American Flags and pledged allegiance to the United States of America. They sang the National Anthem and got a welcome video message from President Donald Trump.
In every chair, there was a different story, a different struggle and a different dream. Here are some of them:
Mustafa Al-Azzawi, 30, from Iraq
“I feel awesome. Finally, the dream came true. I’m a U.S. citizen now. I’m proud. I’m going to go to college and finish my dental school, and I’m going to travel all around the world. I was the last one in my family to get the citizenship because I had to finish dental school in my country. I would have had to move and lose many years of education. But it was worth it. I waited a lot.”
Al-Azzawi attended the ceremony by himself.
Karen Coke, 25, from Jamaica
“I’m actually feeling great, excited that I’m a citizen now. I’ve been here since 2009. My family is all here. I like it in America because it’s a lot of opportunities here. You know, you just got to work hard like I did, stay in school. There’s not a lot of jobs there in Jamaica. I’m enrolled in a physical therapy program now. I’m hoping to graduate in 2020 and take care of my baby daughter.”
Coke was accompanied by her one-month-old daughter.
Anisley Maharaj, 27, from Cuba
“I’m feeling excited, finally. It was a long time. Now I get to travel everywhere, I get to go to jury duty for the first time. I hear about it all the time. We decided last year, after our son was born, ‘Ok, why not we become citizens?’ The process wasn’t too long, only nine months. We applied back in May. It was pretty smooth. They called for the interview, we went to the interview and then we’re here. This is so exciting.”
Maharaj was accompanied by her husband Raj Maharaj, 33, from Trinidad and their 22-month-old son.
Mergie Sato, 38, from The Philippines
“I’m doing so great. I’m so excited that this would happen one day. I’m so grateful. I want to become a good citizen and live here. I actually started to study at Indian River State College in Fort Pierce and I’m trying to pursue my talents, nursing. It’s important that I stay here forever and live with my family, to have better life. To have a great opportunity. A life you can only dream of. I want to travel back and forth, but my home is here now.”
Sato attended the ceremony with her husband Adrien Sato and their 4-year-old daughter.
Pedro J. Diaz, 65, from Venezuela
“I’ve been here 19 years. Everybody has the dream to become a U.S. citizen. I didn’t have the necessity before, but now with my country’s situation, I don’t want to be left out without an identity, without a passport. I decided to become a U.S. citizen because this is a wonderful country. The economy is strong. I like that laws are enforced, and everything is very clean. I’m very proud to have been accepted here. I can travel easier now to other countries. I have five grandchildren who were born in the U.S.”
Diaz attended the ceremony with his daughter and his brother.
Valentina Morales, 23, and her sister Catalina Morales, 27, from Colombia
Valentina Morales: “It’s unbelievable. We’ve been here for a really long time waiting to become citizens. This will change our lives completely. We’ll be able to vote. We’ll be able to do things we that weren’t able to. When I was actually having my interview, someone mentioned FEMA and I want to join that and be part of that, but you have to be a citizen to do that. We have freedom now, so it’s pretty great.”
Catalina Morales: “We’re getting our citizenships. We’re from Colombia and we came here about 17 years ago. We’re just very excited to be here. We definitely feel very lucky to have this opportunity. It allows us to be more active in this country. A couple years ago, I wanted to join the Peace Corps, and I found out that you have to be a U.S. citizen to do that. So there’s definitely a lot of different things that it opens up for you.”
Andrey Da Cruz, 42, from Brazil
“The citizenship came as a huge milestone in my life. It feels great when you finally see it has come true. I have been living in the U.S. for four years with my spouse, who is an American citizen. Even though there is a natural anxiety while going through the whole process, it went very smoothly since the beginning. I am very thankful for everything that happened to me since this process started. I can't wait to use my U.S. passport when coming through customs on my next trip outside the U.S.”
Da Cruz celebrated along his spouse and neighbor.