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Mount Vernon, VA, U.S.A -- U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services swears in 102 new American citizens, originally from 45 countries, during the Fourth of July Celebration at George Washington?s Mount Vernon. Bettsi Baldwin, 29, Ahmed Awadalla, 29, Gionara Karina Lloyd, 34, Fernando Lopez, 42, and Tahira Parveen, 59, left to right, pledge their allegiance to the U.S.A. during their naturalization ceremony at Mt. Vernon, Virginia. / Cheryl Diaz Meyer for USA TODAY

MOUNT VERNON, Va. -- To Samera Khalaf, becoming a U.S. citizen on the Fourth of July is the perfect ending to a long hard journey that started in Baghdad.

"It's beautiful, the whole country is celebrating, like getting married on New Year's Eve," Khalaf said.

She was among 102 people who became naturalized U.S. citizens Friday at the estate of the United States' first president, George Washington, in Mt. Vernon, Va. The U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service granted citizenship to more than 9,000 people across the country in the past week.

Many of the ceremonies took place in historic places Friday, including the White House, Mt. Rushmore, Pearl Harbor and the U.S.S. Midway in San Diego, Calif.

The crowd included immigrants from India, Afghanistan, Sierra Leon, Italy, Brazil, Canada, Turkey, Vietnam and the United Kingdom, said William West, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Citizenship and Immigration Services.

Khalaf, 52, a Sunni Muslim Arabic teacher, fled Iraq because her family was targeted by both Sunni and Shiite extremists during the U.S. occupation.

She spent three years in a Syrian refugee camp before being granted refugee status in the USA five years ago. She's now studying early childhood development at a Northern Virginia Community College and hopes to teach preschool.

"It's a hard experience," she said of refugee status. "You always feel you're going to be put out."

While the fear that comes with being stateless lingers, she said, "now I'm more confident. I'm just like any other citizen."

Sohair ElHabet was beaming after the 45 minute ceremony.

Gaining her citizenship "is just a great feeling, I don't know how to describe it," ElHabet said, joined by her American-educated Egyptian-born husband, American-born daughter and granddaughter. "I just feel free ?? and proud."

She arrived in 1981 from Egypt to join her husband while he earned a doctorate in engineering at the University of Maryland. After 33 years of having to adhere to U.S. visa regulations that limit her stays abroad to a maximum of six months, she's now free to visit family in Cairo for as long as she wants.

But with a home in Burke, Va., and her husband and children living nearby, "I'm not going to live in Egypt again," ElHabet said. "My family is here.

She planned to celebrate her citizenship and the Fourth the American way, with a barbecue and fireworks, she said.

Sadia Masood, 37, an internal medicine doctor at Fairfax City Hospital, said many of the immigrants gaining their citizenship hail from countries where the USA had seen conflict in the past. India had gone to war with Pakistan but she's unaware of many Pakistanis gaining Indian citizenship, she said.

"It's great that America is accepting," said Masood, a Muslim from India. "It feels great to be part of this country."



Copyright 2014USAToday

Read the original story: On July 4th, the journey to U.S. citizenship becomes a dream come true

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