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Neighborhood House client earns citizenship on Fourth of July

Narom Khath, a 60-year-old Neighborhood House client who became a U.S. citizen on the Fourth of July after living in this country for over 15 years, described a great sensation of happiness despite the day’s high temperatures on the unshaded Fisher Pavilion.
He was joined by over 500 immigrants from 78 countries. All were honored in Seattle’s 23rd annual Naturalization Ceremony. The ceremony, hosted by the Ethnic Heritage Council and sponsored by Bank of America, is a deeply meaningful event to its participants as well as their families, friends and the greater community. 

Many in the crowd clutched small American flags and red, white and blue water bottles as U.S. Circuit Court Judge Robert R. Beezer swore in the candidates. 

Among the event’s speakers were Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels, U.S. Rep. Jim McDermott, former Washington Governor Gary Locke and U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell, who in her speech emphasized that “we are a land that defines ourself by our immigrants.” 

Khath, who speaks little English, said he enjoyed the event very much although he experienced some difficulty understanding the many speeches. 

He said he is glad to finally “be united with these people,” adding that the deeper meaning of U.S. citizenship is a certain newfound pride for the place and people he shares his life with, as well as a sense of acceptance and security within a nationality. 

Khath came to the U.S. after struggling for many years under Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge regime. In Cambodia he was mandated, as most citizens were, to work in agriculture. For years he harvested and carried back-breaking sacks of rye. The hours were long and the food was sparse. He also served as a captain of infantry in the Cambodian military. 

In the U.S., Khath has found employment much more satisfying. In his time here he has cooked, painted apartments, worked for a toy company and most recently was employed by a film company. 

Khath credited the ease with which he found employment in the U.S. to his counselor and close friend, Pheakkdei Neak. Neak, a family support worker at Neighborhood House’s Wiley Center at Greenbridge, offered Khath guidance in employment, transportation, housing and the ominous amounts of bureaucratic paperwork immigrant residency entails. What English Khath knows he learned from Neak in weekly lessons. 

Neak and Neighborhood House assisted Khath, who had no family and few acquaintances prior to his arrival, in discovering a strong sense of community. Khath now has many friends, both of Cambodian heritage and various other cultural backgrounds. 

He said he is particularly impressed by Neighborhood House’s staff members’ broad range of cultural understanding and collective ability to develop “great friendships” with their clients. 

For his future as a U.S. citizen, Khath said he hopes to have more time for soccer, volleyball, relaxation and “no more paperwork!” He also looks forward to the ease citizenship offers in getting support from the government. 

Although Khath and the other newly-naturalized citizens represent only a tiny margin of the over 100,000 residents born abroad who currently abide in Seattle, the Naturalization Ceremony offers hope for all citizens to, as Mayor Nickels put it, eventually “feel welcome not only on paper but in their hearts and souls.”