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One nation, 209 new citizens

Some came to the United States for riches, some for their faith, others for freedom.

At Spokane’s Masonic Temple on Monday, there were at least 209 reasons to become American, as many as there were immigrants taking the oath of citizenship.

You can count Mattias Alathir among those “yearning to breathe free.” The 35-year-old from Sudan had the misfortune of being on the losing end of civil strife as old as he is. When government troops came to his village in Al Khartoum state in 1998, the conflict wasn’t so much about Islam vs. Christianity as it was about food.

The soldiers took the grain and livestock and left with all the boys old enough to fight. Alathir was beaten with a belt, leaving him blind in one eye. He also was separated from his wife and son.

After fleeing to Egypt, Alathir applied for U.N. refugee status, and with the injuries to back up his claim of persecution, he got it. A friend in Sudan helped reunite Alathir with his family, and, six months later, they found residence in the United States, settling in Kennewick.

Alathir was accompanied to Spokane on Monday by several friends from among the estimated 300 Sudanese refugees who have settled in the Tri-Cities. One of them, Michael Toung, 26, left Sudan in 1995 for pretty much the same reason Alathir did.

Only Toung couldn’t get refugee status, so he spent five years without work in Egypt before being allowed to immigrate to the United States.

“If I go back to my country, I will put my life in danger,” Toung said.

On the other side of the aisle in the Masonic Temple’s Commandery Room sat six members of the Babchanik Family, Peter and Tatyana, both 50, and their children, Nataliya, 22, Alex, 20, Valeriy, 19, and Jonathan, 5.

All but Jonathan, who is a U.S. citizen by birth, were naturalized on Monday. The Ukrainian family now lives in Moses Lake. Valeriy, who was 10 when his family immigrated, said his father and mother came to the United States for a better life. His father works in construction and Valeriy is hoping for a career in aviation maintenance.

“We can do a lot of things here we couldn’t do back there,” he said.

Each year in Spokane, a large group of immigrants is sworn in as citizens to commemorate May 1 as Law Day, which was proclaimed by President Dwight D. Eisenhower to celebrate the nation’s “heritage of liberty under the law,” according to a statement issued by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. Spokane is one of the few American cities that celebrate Law Day.

Before taking the oath of citizenship, administered by U.S. Magistrate Judge Cynthia Imbrogno, the immigrants listened as Mayor Dennis Hession welcomed them.

“You come from very different walks of life,” Hession told them, “but when you came here, you share a common bond.”

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