As Wagdan Saeed walked forward to officially receive her certificate of citizenship, her husband couldn’t contain himself.
“God bless America,” he called out from the audience, while capturing the moment on video with his mobile phone.
For the couple, who joined other new citizens and their families Thursday morning at Tulsa City Hall, the naturalization ceremony was understandably an emotional experience.
When Saeed and her husband, Louay Iscalagi, arrived in Tulsa five years ago, they were refugees, fleeing religious persecution in their native Iraq.
Now that Saeed has her U.S. citizenship, it’s Iscalagi’s turn. He was set to begin the process Friday, he said.
Part of the New Tulsans Initiative — an effort to welcome new residents and encourage civic engagement — Thursday’s ceremony was the second hosted by the city of Tulsa at City Hall.
This time, 26 residents took the oath to become citizens, representing 10 different countries.
Speaking to the new citizens, Mayor G.T. Bynum said, “I’m so excited as the mayor of Tulsa to get to welcome you for the first time as my fellow Americans.”
“For generations to come in your family’s history,” he added, “this is a historic moment, and it is happening because of you — because you made that choice. We’re so thankful to have you in Tulsa.”
One of the new citizens, Salvador Didion, is a native of the Philippines. He came to America in 2015, he said, after marrying an American citizen.
He said he appreciates the “better government” his new country offers and that he feels a “peace of mind” now that he’s a citizen.
“I can vote in the federal election. I can work for the government. That’s what I really want to do, work for a government agency,” Didion said.
What the day meant to Saeed was hard for her to put into words.
“I’m very honored,” she said. “It’s a dream.”
At her side afterward, wearing a cap with a “Tulsa” logo, Iscalagi said the family is grateful to have found a home in America and in Tulsa.
As Orthodox Christians facing persecution, “we were in a bad situation in Baghdad,” he said. “But now we are safe. We can go to church on Sunday. We sleep very well at night. … We love peace. We are a peaceful people.”
Their son, who came to America with them, also became a citizen recently.
Iscalagi said he is happy for his wife and son and is ready to begin the citizenship process himself.
“The father is always last,” he laughed.
City officials say close to 100 Tulsa residents become U.S. citizens every month. But ceremonies at the federal courthouse can accommodate only 40 at a time, leading many to go to Oklahoma City. That’s not only an extra expense for them, but it makes it less likely that family and friends will be able to attend.
Making City Hall available will help with that, city officials said.
Also, thanks to a grant the city received last year from the National Partnership for New Americans, the naturalization process is now easier to navigate.
The $50,000 grant, matched locally by several foundations, allows eligible immigrant permanent residents to access legal services, along with English as a second language and civics-based citizenship classes.
Officials estimate there are 10,000 eligible immigrant permanent residents in Tulsa County who could apply for citizenship if they had the resources and support.
Once they become citizens, they are encouraged to get involved, Bynum said.
“We want you to play a leadership role in our community,” he told the group Thursday. “Not 20 or 30 years down the road or a couple generations down the road. We want you to play a leadership role in our community right now.”
For more information about the New Tulsans Initiative, go to cityoftulsa.org/newtulsans.