By Courtney Casey
Raymond Damouni's words were simple -- "I am happy" -- but the slow grin spreading across his face said far more.
A war refugee from Lebanon, the Dearborn resident was awaiting the start of a July 27 naturalization ceremony at the Sterling Heights Public Library, where he would become the latest member of his family to be declared an American citizen.
Alongside him were his sister, Norma Damouni, and mother, Georgette Bou Safi, who took the oath of allegiance themselves years ago.
"I hope people do appreciate that they are getting their citizenship and cherish it," said Norma Damouni, "because from our suffering, not being citizens anywhere" -- she paused to collect herself, her voice dropping to a whisper and her eyes welling with tears -- "it's too precious. It's precious to be recognized as a human being."
The Damounis' story played out in various forms across the crowd of 41 people from 22 countries as they finalized their citizenships during the ceremony, a Sterling Heights Ethnic Community Committee-sponsored event that's become a staple of annual Sterlingfest activities.
After taking the oath of allegiance, the attendees stepped forward individually to accept
their naturalization certificates as their names and countries of origin were read aloud.
Now living throughout southeastern Michigan, their native countries spanned the far reaches of the globe: India, Iraq, Jamaica, Yemen, Mexico, Nigeria, Vietnam, Jordan, Macedonia, China, Bosnia, Peru and beyond.
"Now you are citizens," said U.S. District Court Judge Marianne O. Battani, who presided over the ceremony, "and no one can take that away from you."
Speeches by dignitaries and officials, including Battani, Mayor Richard Notte, U.S. Rep. Candice Miller, R-Harrison Township, and Ethnic Community Committee Chairwoman Susan Kattula, preceded the ceremony.
They urged the new citizens to take advantage of the opportunities here -- perhaps opening a business or running for public office -- while also accepting the inherent responsibilities, including serving willingly on a jury if summoned, and above all, registering to vote and exercising that right.
"Your vote, your voice, will have, after today, the same weight as any other American citizen" -- even President Barack Obama, said Doug Pierce of the U.S. Customs and Immigration Service.
Miller said she thinks people born in the United States sometimes become so accustomed to their rights and opportunities that they take them for granted.
"But I have certainly found that those who have chosen to be Americans oftentimes have become some of our nation's best citizens because they never take the blessings of liberty for granted," she said.
"You who have been "yearning to breathe free' today will take your first breath in freedom as an American citizen," she added, quoting a line from an engraved sonnet on the Statue of Liberty. "And I would say, take that breath very deep, and enjoy that breath of liberty and freedom and democracy."
In relinquishing her Iraqi citizenship, Fabronia Yousif, of Sterling Heights, said she was looking forward "to serve to work for America, to do something important to America."
She said it was impossible to put her emotions into words as she took that final step toward naturalization.
"I can't describe my feelings, because I'm so excited to be an American (citizen)," she said. "Everything here is better than back home, because I can work; I can go anywhere -- there's freedom for anything, (to) do anything for me, for my family, for my neighbors, and nobody can say, "Don't do that.'"