By Ernesto Londoño
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, April 13, 2008
BAGHDAD, April 12 -- Evan Eskharia fled Iraq in 1990 when he was 9 years old, crossing into Turkey on foot one night with his parents and siblings.
On Saturday morning, Eskharia, now a U.S. Marine, strode into a palace built for the man his family had fled and recited the oath of citizenship.
He was among 259 service members who obtained U.S. citizenship during the largest overseas naturalization ceremony in history.
"When they called my name, I looked down and said: 'It happened! It's done!' " Eskharia said, standing under a grand chandelier that lights up the main hall of the Al Faw Palace, built as a retreat for Saddam Hussein. "It's ironic that I fled this country from a dictator and came back to get my citizenship here."
Al Faw is now part of a massive U.S. military base surrounded by blast walls and concertina wire. The service members sat in olive green folding chairs, their rifles placed neatly underneath on the shiny marble floors, perpendicular to their boots.
"This crowd reminds us that the source of our nation's uniqueness is our ethnic and cultural diversity," said Lt. Gen. Lloyd James Austin III, the keynote speaker. "These warriors have already sworn an oath to protect the United States. They have put themselves in harm's way to do our nation's bidding."
A U.S. soldier sang "The Star-Spangled Banner" a cappella. Then a recorded congratulatory message from President Bush, standard at naturalization ceremonies, played on a white screen. The message was followed by Lee Greenwood's "Proud to Be an American."
Reciting the oath of citizenship, the group, which included service members from 71 countries, vowed to "bear arms on behalf of the United States when required by law." Then, as their names were called, each approached the front of a room and collected a certificate of citizenship from John Lafferty, a district director of the U.S. Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services. Each soldier was also handed a folded American flag.
"It was a great honor for me," Lafferty said.
Lafferty and his deputy, who are based in Rome, spent a week in Baghdad interviewing soldiers and ironing out last-minute paperwork issues.
Since 2004, when Bush signed into law the new regulations that streamlined the citizenship process for service members, more than 5,000 soldiers have become U.S. citizens. Roughly 20,000 active service members are eligible to apply, according to immigration officials.
Since Sept. 11, 2001, more than 140 foreign-born U.S. soldiers have died while on active duty. Some have been naturalized posthumously.
The new rules allowed Army Spec. Sheikh Qaisar, 34, of Houston to become a citizen less than two years after he moved to the United States.
"I joined the Army the same month," said Qaisar, who was born in Pakistan and has been stationed in the city of Mosul since November. "I wanted to learn about the U.S. culture and system."
U.S. Army Spec. Myakol Mayom, 35, of Sioux Falls, S.D., who fled southern Sudan in 2001, said U.S. support for the people of his region, which was embroiled in a years-long civil war, allowed him to escape.
"When I came to the United States, I never felt like a refugee," said Mayom, holding a folded U.S. flag. "The U.S. saved my life. If I die tomorrow, I would die smiling because I did the right thing."
Eskharia's childhood neighborhood is a 20-minute drive from the military base where he became an American. He recalled the night in 1990 that his family crossed into Turkey. "We walked for 19 hours," he said. "We were very scared."
In Turkey, "we weren't treated very well," he said, remembering that food and showers were scarce.
His family settled near San Diego, where years later, working at a Blockbuster video store, he fell in love with Melissa, who managed a pizza parlor and became his wife. After meeting her brother, a Marine, he decided he wanted to join.
"I liked how he presented himself. He's very smart," said Eskharia, an engineer who has been working on infrastructure projects in Iraq.
He remembered swimming and fishing in Habbaniyah, a city in the western province of Anbar. He's now stationed near there. "The smell in the air has changed," he said. "It was a lot cleaner."
As he left the palace, his wife -- 10 time zones away in El Cajon, Calif. -- was getting ready for bed.
"I know how much it meant to him," Melissa Eskharia, 21, said in a telephone interview Saturday morning. "It meant more to him getting it in Baghdad."