CEDAR FALLS — Vanesi Nshimirimana was the first of her family to become a United States citizen in 2015.
The native of Burundi, who lives in Cedar Rapids, fled to the U.S. in 1998, escaping the Burundian Civil War between the Hutu and Tutsi ethnic groups that lasted until 2005.
More than 20 years later, she watched as her mother, Marita Nyantwi — dressed in a white, sparkly gown — took the same naturalization oath she took four years ago.
It meant the promise of a more stable life for the family, Nshimirimana said.
“There is too much death and famine” in Burundi still, she said, citing ongoing violence in the country. “Most of our relatives are in refugee camps.”
Clutching packets of government papers and tiny American flags on sticks, 125 people became naturalized U.S. citizens in a ceremonial court proceeding of the U.S. Northern District at the Maucker Union Ballroom on the University of Northern Iowa campus Wednesday afternoon.
“Each of your journeys to get here has been unique,” said Brenda Bass, dean of UNI’s College of Social and Behavioral Sciences. “I’m here to say congratulations on this special day, and I hope you enjoy the moment.”
The new citizens, from age 22 to 87, represented 43 countries, from as close as Canada and as far away as New Zealand. The most were from Mexico, with 15 new citizens taking the oath, followed by Myanmar with 14 new citizens, Bosnia with eight and the Philippines with seven. All live in the Northern District of Iowa, which covers 52 of Iowa’s 99 counties.
“Usually, when I preside over court, someone is going to leave unhappy or in handcuffs,” said U.S. District Court Judge C.J. Williams. “I guarantee nobody is going to leave here unhappy.”
Christopher Hteh was the last of his family to become a U.S. citizen from Myanmar, which was referred to by its previous name of Burma during the ceremony. His wife became an American citizen in a Cedar Rapids ceremony in February, and their two daughters, 5 and 15 months, were born here.
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The process took about 10 months, he said through a translator. Myanmar has been dealing with civil war since its independence from the United Kingdom in 1948, and violence has led to many ethnic groups being forced to relocate to refugee camps.
It was stories like that, Williams said in his remarks, that makes the ceremony meaningful for him.
“As many of these as I get to do, it never fails to choke me up,” he said. “I know how hard each of you have worked to get here, and the sacrifices you have made.”
Video messages from Iowa senators Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst, as well as from President Donald Trump, congratulated the new citizens and reminded them of their responsibilities.
“As a new U.S. citizen, you have gained valuable rights and privileges,” Grassley said in his video. “You have all shown a great deal of courage by leaving your homeland and coming to this new land.”
Ernst said she appreciated others’ longing for democracy from when she spent time in what was then Soviet Union-controlled Ukraine.
“This desire for freedom and opportunity is what brings us together,” she said in her video. “Thank you for bringing your talent and spirit to Iowa.”
Even Trump, whose administration has tightened restrictions on immigration from certain countries, sounded a welcoming tone in his video.
“It is with great pride that I welcome you into the American family,” Trump said.
Wednesday’s ceremony was the eighth hosted by UNI, the university said.