TAMPA — Twenty-five grinning people raised their right hands on cue, renouncing fidelity to foreign sovereignties, so help them God. The church auditorium erupted in applause.
In the back of the room, a man with his hands at his sides watched, smiling and tearing up a little.
Someday he'll know what it feels like. He'll take the tests and the oath and he hopes, become a United States citizen.
"It's like the dream of buying a new house," said Mukhallad Al Agelli, an Iraqi refugee who watched a naturalization ceremony in Tampa on Saturday. "Now, you feel like you are renting, but someday you will have a new house. And you will be safe. And it will be your home."
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At ceremonies in Tampa and Largo, refugees from about a dozen countries became U.S. citizens as part of World Refugee Day. Almost 17,400 refugees have settled in the Tampa Bay area in the last five years, according to the Tampa Bay Refugee Task Force.
Saturday was the first time the bay area's Refugee Day celebrations included citizenship ceremonies, said Kathy Redman, a district director for the U.S. Citizenship and Naturalization Office.
"This is the ultimate goal," Redman said.
At the Largo Public Library, two dozen people were naturalized. Daryl Quinn, 30, who lives in Bradenton but was born in England, waited years to take the oath.
"We have opportunity in England," Quinn said. "But I think the opportunities are better in the land of opportunity."
About 100 people attended Tampa's ceremony at the Oak Grove United Methodist Church on W Waters Avenue, and 25 became citizens. In the audience were Haitians flown to Tampa after the country's devastating January earthquake, immigrants who were naturalized in previous ceremonies, and refugees still waiting for a chance.
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Agelli left Iraq almost a year ago after six months of negotiating with the U.S. Embassy.
The 27-year-old had recently graduated and was working as a general-practice doctor in an Iraq hospital, but seeing so much of the war's carnage and death made him want to leave, he said.
"I was traumatized," Agelli said.
Agelli arrived in Florida in August 2009. With help from the refugee task force, he settled in Pasco County and got a job as an Arabic interpreter for local hospitals.
Because the U.S. doesn't recognize his Iraqi medical degree, he will apply for a fellowship at the American College of Surgeons. He said he studies at least five hours a day.
In his free time, Agelli brushes up on American history and geography. He won't be eligible to take his citizenship test for four more years, but he wants to be ready.
"This is my dream," Agelli said.
He also serves as chairman of the task force's refugee advisory panel — a liaison between refugees and those who provide resources. On Saturday, he stood with task force members as the newly confirmed U.S. citizens received their certificates.
Agelli handed each one a U.S. Citizen's Almanac.
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In a videotaped message, President Barack Obama congratulated the new Americans. "You have the opportunity to enrich this country," Obama said. "I am proud to welcome you."
They sang songs: The Star-Spangled Banner, I'm Proud to be an American and You're a Grand Old Flag.
New citizen Sonia Archila, 33, from Colombia, called it "a dream come true."
For 32-year-old Herbert Makola from Liberia, "Now the sky is the limit."
Maja Milosevec, 19, from Bosnia-Herzegovina, is "excited about getting to vote."
They waved little American flags and posed for pictures as Agelli smiled from beside the stage.
The room quieted and everyone — U.S. citizens, refugees and those in between — put their hands over their hearts.
"I pledge allegiance …"
Times staff writer Jamal Thalji contributed to this report. Kim Wilmath can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3386.