STOCKBRIDGE — Samuel Donkor heard his phone ring with what his caller ID warned him was “potential spam.” He still took the call. “Hello?”
“Congratulations, you're now an American citizen!” said the voice on the other end of the line.
“Are you guys kidding me? It's like yeah, stop,” Donkor said, at first skeptical. The confirmation came later with another congratulatory email that it was indeed the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services.
Donkor, along with 30 others hailing from 26 countries, became naturalized citizens of the United States Wednesday morning in a ceremony at Naumkeag in Stockbridge that was organized by the Berkshire Immigrant Center.
Donkor, who is from Ghana, and his wife Amanda met when Facebook suggested they might know each other. They did not – Donkor was living in England at the time and Amanda is from Lee.
But they started chatting. After a while, Amanda decided to visit him. “When I first went to England, my parents didn’t think he was real. [They] told me to return my ticket,” she said.
When they realized they couldn’t be apart, Donkor applied for a K-1 visa, also called “fiance visa,” which allows a foreign national who plans to marry a U.S. citizen to enter the country and get married within 90 days.
This involves a lot of paperwork, including letters of recommendation from people who know the couple and can attest that the relationship is genuine. The couple has now been married for almost nine years and has a 3-year-old son, Caiden.
Raquel Lee, another newly naturalized citizen, came from Costa Rica in 2010. In her home country, she was a psychologist but wanted to advance professionally. “This is a country that I had always admired for its progress. I wanted to see what I could learn.”
In her postgraduate internship with a human services agency in the Berkshires, she rediscovered how much her profession could change people’s lives. “I loved it. Therapy is a lot more advanced, there were a lot more resources and research to help people with mental health issues,” said Lee.
Jorge Cedeno, a Great Barrington resident, had to start his path to citizenship with a sacrifice. “The dream started with my mother-in-law, who migrated with my wife. I had to stay back in Ecuador with my son. For two years and a half, I had to be my son’s dad and mom,” said Cedeno.
In 2016, he finally arrived in the United States. Thanks to a scholarship from Litnet, he could afford the citizenship application process.
“This day will be unforgettable. It’s one more goal that I set for myself when I arrived in this country. [It] has given me so many opportunities to grow personally, family-wise and right now redefine my landscaping business,” said Cedeno.
Cedeno brought a large party to the ceremony: His wife, Natalie Marquez; 11-year-old son Jonathan; his mother-in-law; his English tutor and a friend all attended in person. Four of his family members watched Marquez’ livestream from the Ecuadorian city of Quayaquil.
The ceremony was short and emotional, against breathtaking views over the Housatonic River valley. The new citizens were smiling and relaxed, accompanied by a small crowd of friends and family.
An important emphasis was put on civic rights. U.S. District Court Judge Katherine A. Robertson encouraged the new citizens to vote.
As American citizens, they have "the right to participate fully in the civic and cultural life," Robertson said. "And I urge you to use those rights. When you vote, you're expressing your sense of how this country should be, what our laws should be, and how our public money should be spent. ”
Donkor said voting is what he finds most exciting about being American. “I became a citizen to do this, to have a voice. I could [have kept renewing] my green card and everything, but as a citizen, you give more,” he said.
Cedeno shared the excitement of being able to vote, despite not being politically inclined, by his own admission. “I’m happy to participate in this country’s democracy. My voice will be heard,” he said.
Lee expressed delight in the power to vote. “Voting gives me a lot of joy. I believe in democracy, in choosing the people that are going to lead us. I believe in freedom. It’s one of the big reasons why I wanted to become naturalized,” she said.
Cedeno said he was planning a small celebration after the ceremony. “I have a small lunch with my guests, but then I have to go back to why I came here, to work. There’s no time to waste,” he said.
After 10 years of working in the United States, Lee remains committed to advocating for people with mental health issues.
“My job in the Massachusetts Rehabilitation Commission is to find jobs for people with a disability. It’s very important to include people with disabilities into the community. That’s what I like the most. There’s an environment of hope and inclusion,” said Lee.
In a way, Lee’s path to becoming a respected professional in a new country makes her better at her job.
“I know from my heart what it’s like to be different, to not be seen with respect, to work two or three times harder to be respected as a professional,” she said. The people she works with face problems in their lives. "I’m happy to give them a second chance to be part of the community.”