Proud to be American

Kpakpo Akue wanted a doctorate in chemistry. In Togo, if you want a science doctorate, you go to France or the United States. In 1997, Akue chose America.

Ruben and Greyla Ricardo married in 2000 and decided they didn't want to raise children in the communist Cuba they'd grown up in. The next year, they fled to Mexico, crossed the Texas border and waited in jail for two days before U.S. immigration officials let them in.

Their journeys began on opposite sides of the world and met Saturday at Central Piedmont Community College, where Akue, the Ricardos and 373 others took the Oath of Allegiance as U.S. citizens.

“Just living here, you feel a part of this country, a part of the beauty of this country,” said Akue, 36, who works for PharmAgra Labs in Asheville. “The idea that you can really make a difference.”

The Ricardos live in Kernersville, midway between Winston-Salem and Greensboro. Ruben, 38, works as a planner for the Michaels chain of arts and crafts stores and Greyla, 30, as a business analyst for an insurance company. “I don't have words to express,” Greyla said, “how proud I am to live in this country.”

The Charlotte field office of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services naturalizes individuals and families all the time. But federal officials wanted to do something different with the approach of Citizenship Day, a little-known federal holiday on Sept. 17. Federal officials haven't done a mass naturalization in a couple of years, said office Director Richard Gottlieb.

Immigration Services has seen a swell of applicants for U.S. citizenship in the last two years, possibly because of the national attention given illegal immigration, Gottlieb said, “and a lot of people want to vote, also.” On Saturday, CPCC's 1,020-seat Halton Theater was packed with new Americans and their families.

Both Akue and the Ricardos said they're especially looking forward to voting. Their native countries technically have elections. But Cuba is a one-party state, and Togo is only beginning to emerge from decades of a virtual military dictatorship.

For the first time, they all said, they believe their votes will matter.

“We talked about that a lot,” said Akue's wife, Kaila, a native of Anniston, Ala. “He was really amazed you could have a voice with your vote.” (The Akues plan to vote for Barack Obama for president. The Ricardos said they'll vote for John McCain.)

From his west African homeland, Akue landed at the University of Tennessee, where he earned a doctorate in chemistry and met Kaila. “At that point,” he said, smiling, “it was pretty clear I was going to stay.”

In 2001, the Ricardos made their way through Mexico and crossed over at McAllen, Texas. From there, they lived in Miami for 18 months, then six years ago moved to North Carolina, where friends lived.

Greyla Ricardo can tell you exactly how long she and Ruben have lived in their adopted homeland. “Seven years, seven months, 22 days,” she said. “And we do not regret a second.”