Central Texas welcomed 28 newly-minted American citizens Saturday in a ceremony held on World Refugee Day at the Bullock Texas State History Museum in downtown Austin.
The men and women came from 11 different countries, including Iraq, Afghanistan, Burma and Sierra Leone. Many wore colorful traditional clothing. Some were circumspect, while others were brimming with excitement as they received their certificates of citizenship.
“I feel awesome,” said David Phan, 29, who was born in Vietnam and became a citizen Saturday. “I’ve always felt like an American, but this just makes it official.”
Phan, a human resources professional, moved to the U.S. with his parents and siblings when he was 3 years old. All four of his siblings were born in the U.S or have become naturalized. His mother took the oath earlier this year in California, he said. He was the last member of the family to change his status from permanent resident to citizen.
“It means to belong, to finally have a true home,” Phan said. “The ability to vote is big. I’ve always had opinions. I’ve just never been able to express them in that way.”
In addition to the naturalization ceremony, local refugees and members of the public were invited to a reception to share their cultures through music, food and dancing.
“It’s important to have a day where refugees can have fun,” said Celia VanDeGraaf, executive director of the Center for Survivors of Torture, one of the groups that hosted Austin’s World Refugee Day. “It’s important for refugees to meet each other and experience each other’s cultures.”
Refugees, and survivors of torture in particular, can feel isolated, VanDeGraaf said. The center provides free mental health counseling, training, social and medical services and legal referrals to those escaping human rights abuses in their countries.
Several organizations that serve the refugee community — including Caritas of Austin, Interfaith Action of Central Texas, Refugee Services of Texas, Multicultural Refugee Coalition and Amala Foundation — were instrumental in putting the celebration together and were on hand to offer information to attendees.
According to figures provided by the Center for Survivors of Torture, 5,423 refugees and asylum-seekers have come to Texas so far this year, a 40 percent increase from the same period last year. Most of them come from Iraq, Burma, Cuba, Bhutan and the Democratic Republic of Congo. That doesn’t count the number of people who are awaiting courts to grant them asylum status.
The center expects another influx of women and children refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo in the coming months. Ongoing conflict in region is estimated to have claimed more than 5 million lives.
“Our hope and goal is to help people acculturate and become productive members of society and this celebration is a part of that,” VanDeGraaf said.