It was 1980 when Sonn Ke escaped the Cambodian city of Battambang just ahead of the Khmer Rouge.
On Tuesday, 31 years later, the 84-year-old Ke finally reached the final leg of her journey, becoming a U.S. citizen along with 58 other refugees in a ceremony in southeast Fresno.
The Fresno field office of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service holds naturalization ceremonies every month at the Convention Center in downtown Fresno, but this was the first of its kind in the Valley – it was held in southeast Fresno and only for refugees.
"We wanted to have this in their community, so it would be easier for families to travel to the ceremony," said Don Riding, the field office's director.
Unlike those seeking citizenship after arriving in the United States, refugees obtain special visas before entering the country and can apply to be permanent residents soon after arriving. After five years as permanent residents, they can apply to become U.S. citizens.
But for many, the process can take decades.
Ke was the last in her family to become a citizen. Her journey to the United States began at age 53, with two days of blazing her own trail through the Cambodian jungle on foot and avoiding minefields with six children in tow. Eventually Ke made her way to the Thailand border and the Khoa I Dang refugee camp.
Once there, she took her place in line with 40,000 other refugees, waiting to hear what would happen to her next.
It would be five years before she had an answer. She would be sent to Fresno, and an apartment on the southeast side of town. Her children would go to local schools, learn English and eventually graduate from Roosevelt High School.
But even years after Ke's children grew up, became citizens and started families of their own, she always worried, said her son San Soth.
The English language had never come easily to her. She applied to become a citizen a decade ago but failed the test.
More than two decades after coming to the Valley, Soth said, his mother worried she would be sent back to her native country if she couldn't become a citizen.
But immigration rules requiring English were softened this year for refugees who are more than 50 years old and have lived in the U.S. for more than 20 years. Another recent rule allows refugees to waive the $600 application fee, Riding said.
Those changes have brought a flood of naturalization applications from Southeast Asian immigrants.
Now in a wheelchair, Ke grasped a miniature American flag as she was sworn in as a U.S. citizen, Soth by her side.
"I'm happy to become a citizen," she said in her native Khmer language while Soth translated. "I don't want to go back to Cambodia."
Ke wasn't alone in her wait.
"For years, I wasn't ready to become a citizen yet; I didn't know what it meant," said Thong Mou, a social worker who came to Fresno 37 years ago from Laos. "Now, it's really an honor."
For Jane Brown, it took 10 years to gain citizenship after coming to the U.S. from Sierra Leone.
"There never seemed to be a good time," she said.
But to those who became U.S. citizens Tuesday, it was worth the effort.
Many had tears in their eyes and hugged immigration officials as they finally picked up their embossed naturalization papers.
Sahra Ali of Somalia lifted her certificate high over her head as she headed toward waiting family members.
"Thank you, America!" she said.
For Indonsei Uy, a refugee from Indonesia, it was a moment 26 years in the making.
"It's a new start," she said. "I'm able to speak with my own voice now."
Ke nodded and smiled broadly as she received her papers. Now a U.S. citizen, she softly said the only words she had spoken in English all morning: "Thank you."
Reference: Valerie Gibbons, "59 refugees complete path to U.S. citizenship", The Fresno Bee, 29 June 2011