'I went from a refugee to a citizen'

Naturalization ceremony welcomes 87 new Americans

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They came from 40 different nations and nearly every continent on the globe to settle here in Western Pennsylvania, a place they now call home.

And Friday, though some of them have been here for decades, 87 people completed their journey to American citizenship with a naturalization ceremony at Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall and Museum in Oakland.

For some, the ceremony felt like a formality, making official for them what had been true for a long time.

Rodel Quemado, 50, of O'Hara came here 19 years ago from the Philippines for an engineering job. He and his wife, Rebecca, who was also naturalized Friday morning, said the ceremony was a casual occasion.

"It's more like a formality for what in effect has been happening for a long time," he said. After nearly two decades in the United States, he decided, "Why not make it official?"

Citizenship for him means less paperwork when he travels abroad. For Mrs. Quemado, it solidifies her affection for her adopted country, a place she's described as "a melting pot," a place where she can hold onto the culture of her native Philippines and still feel fully American.

"I've lived here longer than I've lived any other place I've ever lived in my entire life," she said.

Kirsten Donley, 65, of Ben Avon Heights has been here even longer, since 1981. Raised in the Netherlands and Belgium, she came to Pittsburgh when she met and married her husband, an American. She thought Friday's ceremony would be no big deal, like a trip to the Department of Motor Vehicles with a little more pomp. But she got unexpectedly emotional as she sat on the edge of a row of seats reserved specially for naturalization candidates.

"I thought it was going to be a formality, but I've been sitting here and thinking about my parents," she said, tearing up. "It's harder than I thought."

Some piece of her, she said, felt like she was severing ties with her birthplace. "I've been gone for so long," she said. "My heritage is Dutch, but America is my country."

But for others, Friday's ceremony marked the culmination of a long and difficult journey to the United States.

Constance Mulbah, 23, of Mt. Lebanon arrived in Pittsburgh 10 years ago with her family, refugees from war-torn Liberia who spent four years in refugee camps in the Ivory Coast. Friday, she said, was a gleeful day for her.

"I went from a refugee to a citizen," she said with a broad grin.

Dalila Sanchez Martyak, at 63, was fulfilling a lifelong dream of becoming a U.S. citizen. She came to the Pittsburgh area from Peru a decade ago, speaking not a lick of English, to join a friend who was working at a medical facility. But she studied hard, taking English as a second language course at Penn State University in Monaca, doing lessons during her lunch hours and studying more after work. Six years later, she passed a nursing licensing exam.

It was not easy, she said, "but I pressure myself."

Mayor Bill Peduto spoke at the ceremony, talking at length about his own grandfather, an Italian immigrant who came to Western Pennsylvania to work for Columbia Steel. Immigrants, he said, are a key component of his plan to grow the city by 20,000 people in the next decade.

"This city was built on the backs of immigrants," he said.

Over the next couple of years, he said he hopes hundreds more like those seated in front of him are sworn in, people he believes can "rebuild this city."

The city's nonprofit and faith-based manager, Betty Cruz, will take on the challenge of formulating policies and initiatives to make the city more hospitable to immigrants. She has been on the job only a few months but said her primary focus has been "setting the tone" and making the mayor's goal known.

Though immigration policy is often thought of a federal matter, she said, cities still have a role to play when it comes to outreach with immigrants. Oakland, Calif., for example, created its own city-based identification card that didn't require immigrants to have legal documents. New York City formulated an entire policy blueprint and created an Office of Immigration Affairs.

Ms. Cruz said it's not clear yet what direction Pittsburgh will take, but one idea she pitched was civic education for immigrants modeled after the Civic Leadership Academy already in place through the mayor's office.

"Right now it's about small but meaningful steps," she said.

Moriah Balingit: mbalingit@post-gazette.com, 412-263-2533 or on Twitter @MoriahBee.

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