TAMPA — Inside the courtroom, Mogtaba Maki took an empty seat at what's normally the defense table.
A Colombian woman wearing an American flag scarf sat at his side.
Men and women whispering in foreign accents piled into the jury box. Family members filled the gallery, with cameras and toddlers in tow.
A hush fell over the courtroom.
Maki stared straight ahead, clasped his hands in his lap and nervously pulled at each of his fingers. He wore his only suit, a black polyester number, with a dark silk tie.
Almost 10 years ago, he fled Sudan in terror with three T-shirts and a pair of shoes. Since then, he studied, worked — and waited for this day.
Finally, the judge entered.
A few minutes later, Maki stood amid 50 people, all forming a semi-circle before the judge.
"For those of you applicants who have run the gauntlet … it's my pleasure, my honor, to administer the oath to become a citizen of this great country," said U.S. Magistrate Judge Thomas McCoun III.
In 1999, Maki was 16 and already studying at the Omdurman Islamic University in Khartoum, the capital of Sudan. His mother, a teacher, had encouraged a love of learning. Maki wanted to be a dentist.
But one day, he found his name on a school bulletin board list, drafting him into the country's civil war. Millions of people had been killed or displaced by the war, fought mostly by Muslim Arabs from the north against Christian black Africans from the south. Maki was agnostic and African, but the military drafted anyone fit to fight.
Instead of taking up arms, Maki fled, by trains and ferry until he reached a United Nations' refugee camp in Cairo. He left behind five siblings and his parents. He lived at the camp for two years until aid workers found a sponsor to resettle him in another country. Cleared by U.S. officials, he flew to New York.
Lutheran Services Florida brought him to Tampa, where he obtained permanent residency. He learned English and worked two jobs. He studied at the University of South Florida and sent money to his family, which had fled to the same camp in Cairo.
The St. Petersburg Times published a profile of Maki in 2005. That year, Lutheran Services resettled his father and three sisters in Tampa. When his father stepped off the plane, Maki fainted.
His sisters obtained work visas, applied for green cards, found jobs and enrolled in classes.
Years passed, but there was no word from immigration on when his mother and two remaining siblings could come to the United States. Maki applied for his citizenship in 2007. If he were a citizen, he could bring his family here faster.
"I go to the immigration office, and they can't give you any information. They say it's still in the process. I drive home feeling hopeless," Maki said.
In September, he took his citizenship test and passed. In late February, a letter arrived from immigration. It said Maki should report for his naturalization ceremony at 9 a.m. March 12 at the federal courthouse in Tampa.
"I was jumping like I won an Oscar," he said.
Outside the courtroom, Maki stood alone, holding his certificate of citizenship. His sisters had midterm exams and work. His father is in Cairo caring for Maki's sick mother. Still, Thursday was one of the happiest days of his life, he said.
Maki, 25, expects to graduate in May from USF with bachelor's degrees in biomedical science and biochemistry. He plans to work on a master's degree in public health while taking exams to enter dental school at the University of Florida.
With citizenship behind him, graduation ahead and his mother's arrival pending, his long journey is almost complete.
"In the fall, I apply for dental school," he said. "If I get in, all my dreams come true."
Saundra Amrhein can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 661-2441.