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Naturalized citizens happy, eager to vote
By Steve WartenbergThe Columbus Dispatch

For 22 years, Yacob Amare has waited to say his first words as an American citizen.

He finally got his chance yesterday, at the start of the annual Columbus International Festival at the Ohio Expo Center. U.S. District Judge Edmund A Sargus Jr. presided over a naturalization ceremony there for about 75 people from 35 countries who ranged in age from 18 to 73.

Each new citizen stood and stated his or her name and birth country. Many added how happy they are to be citizens; others said they look forward to voting for the first time.

“My name is Yacob Amare from Ethiopia, and I’ll be running for office one day,” said the 34-year-old believer in the American dream.

“I want to be a senator,” he said later.

Amare and the other new citizens joined the growing melting pot of central Ohio, or what Sargus described as “a fine mosaic.”

While many festivals focus on “one ethnicity, one country or one faith, we are international,” said Dr. J.S. Jindal, a retired dentist from India who is chairman of the International Festival, which was first held in 1955.

The goal is to bring people together.

“There is always a fear of the unknown,” Jindal said. “But when I see you are just like me, and I open up and talk with you, there is no more fear; we are all humans.”

The International Festival continues today and features dancers from Colombia, Iran, Egypt and many other nations, plus Brazilian street food, Polish pierogies and stuffed cabbage, as well as that most American of festival foods: kettle corn.

Booths have vendors selling ethnic clothes, crafts and jewelry. Others are run by local cultural organizations such as the Ukrainian Cultural Association of Ohio, Arab Americans of Central Ohio and Sudanese American Community.

“The first thing we want people to know is where Sudan is,” said Soad Balla, adding that a 10-year-old boy visiting the booth yesterday was the first to know the country is in northern Africa, just south of Egypt.

Sudan is the cradle of civilization, she said, and “people are always surprised to hear we have more pyramids than Egypt, about 100, but they’re not as big as the ones in Egypt.”

Amare came to this country with his parents and three siblings. The Canal Winchester resident played soccer at Radford University in Virginia, is the founder of the African Cup USA Soccer Tournament and Unity Festival, and describes himself as a motivational speaker and advocate for the African community.

“My fiancee is pregnant, and I want to be a citizen when my child was born,” he said.

Eric Letourneaux, 42, came to this country from France to attend graduate school — and never left. He, too, became a citizen yesterday.

“It was more of a relief than anything else,” said Letourneaux, a listening and speaking skill coordinator for Ohio University’s Department of Linguistics.

On his first day as a citizen, he planned to do something to help the economy of his new country.

“I’m going shopping,” Letourneaux. “I need some work pants.”

swartenberg@dispatch.com

@stevewartenberg

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