74 get citizenship at Mystic naturalization ceremony

Mystic — In a ceremony that combined the seafaring aesthetic of immigration — complete with chantey tunes — with the oath of citizenship, 74 people from 32 countries became naturalized American citizens on Wednesday at Mystic Seaport as boats passed by.

People who immigrated to the U.S. from Uzbekistan, Turkey and Korea, as well as several from nearby Jamaica and Mexico, filled the Tom Clagett Boat Shed as a court session was convened and certificates of citizenship were awarded.

Nabil Bebawy immigrated from Cairo, Egypt, in 2009, along with his wife, Hala Beshay, and their daughter Maria. They now live in Norwich and have added three more children to their family since arriving in the U.S. Bebawy works at Mohegan Sun.

As Coptic Christians, Nabil Bebawy said, they immigrated in part because of the U.S.'s constitutional protections, especially the ability to practice their religion.

"Here you can practice what you believe," he said.

Others were there to support their friends and get a taste of what lies ahead for them. Jacob Amaoko of Hartford was there to support his friend Gloria Fosuaa and watch her young son. He said he, too, plans to soon get his citizenship. 

Both lived in the Brong-Ahafo Region of Ghana but didn't know each other until they were two of the lucky few thousand who won a visa and were granted permanent residency in the U.S. Over a million in Ghana had applied.

They met after arriving in the country at the Walgreens distribution center in Windsor, and became close friends. Both plan to continue their education.

"She's like a sister," Jacob Amaoko said.

He said she told him the interview "was a bit scary and she was a bit nervous" but he came away reassured that he could get his citizenship, too.

The ceremony was kicked off by singers Geoff Kaufman and Denise Kegler, who sang traditional chantey songs as the crowd filled the boathouse, and then transitioned to a song about Ellis Island.

The date of the ceremony commemorated two other events: Flag Day, which marks the adoption of the U.S. flag, and the anniversary of the founding of the U.S. Army, as speakers reminded the crowd of family members and supporters.

Small flags were passed around before the oath of citizenship, and Nieves Cardinale, director of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services field office in Hartford encouraged them to practice their flag-waving.

As he presided over the ceremony, Judge Robert Richardson explained to the audience the process by which permanent residents gain citizenship, which includes a written exam with questions about American history and an interview.

"If they fail at any point, they don't get here," he said. "It's an important thing to remember."

Stonington First Selectman Rob Simmons told the new citizens to "hold your head up high for this accomplishment." He opened up a wrinkled piece of paper to show off the original citizenship paperwork, circa 1850, of his grandfather, who fled the Irish potato famine.

"It's a symbol of how important it is to be a citizen," he said.

After the ceremony was finished and families got a photo with the judge, many chose to stick around and wait in a long line to register to vote and obtain their passports. The glow of their new citizenship hadn't yet worn off, though.

"I am feeling very good," Bebawy said, moving to stand closer to his wife. "We achieved this together."

n.lynch@theday.com

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