"Are you a U.S. citizen?"
No. That was the answer I always had to give since coming to the United States more than five years ago.
Now I can change that "no" to "yes." Yes. I am a U.S. citizen.
Though my journey to citizenship was long, I feel as if I've been in the United States less than five years.
I enrolled in high school three days after I landed in St. Paul. I have lived in St. Paul and gone to school all of that time. In two months, I'll get my bachelor's degree in journalism from the University of Minnesota.
The process of becoming a naturalized citizen is not simple. You must reside in the United States as a permanent resident for five years to qualify. Then you will fill out a very long application called the N-400. Some people who can't read English well struggle with it. There are some local organizations that offer help with filling out the application; most of them charge between $30 and $50. In addition, you must send a $680 fee with your application, but if you can't afford it you can apply for a waiver.
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If your application is approved, you start preparing for the English, U.S. history and civics portions of the naturalization test. Some people dread this exam. Most memorize the 100 civics questions. You will be asked 10 questions randomly, and you must answer six correctly to pass the test. There is another, written portion that will assess your ability to write three to four simple English sentences.
If everything goes smoothly, you will get a letter in the mail notifying you of your naturalization oath ceremony. The whole process takes less than six months.
When we arrived Wednesday at the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul, where our ceremony was held, we were told to hand in our green cards because we would no longer need them. Certificates of citizenship replaced the green cards.
We were led to a hall where the ceremony was held. More than 250 of us representing 59 countries sat side by side with little American flags in our hands. As I looked around the room, I saw people with different backgrounds, races and religions happily conversing.
We were told to stand as our countries of origin were read one by one. I heard countries such as Bosnia and Herzegovina, Nicaragua, Canada and Tanzania. Some countries had small representations in the room. Somalia, Ethiopia and Liberia had the largest contingents.
The mood inside the hall was euphoric. We stood for special moments, such as the national anthem. When Judge John Tunheim declared us citizens, the hall exploded with excitement. Thunderous clapping echoed around the hall. We waved to our loved ones; we waved the little American flags. We became American citizens.
This new citizenship status comes with a special power: the right to vote, the right to participate in the political process at every level. We were given voter registration applications, which we filled in before we left.
I am thankful to have the opportunity to become an American citizen. I am proud to call myself American. I hope I will be treated as any other American.
Mukhtar M. Ibrahim is a student at the University of Minnesota and an intern at Minnesota Public Radio.