CAPE MAY COURT HOUSE — There were cheers, some tears, a lot of big smiles, flag-waving and prayer as 21 people from diverse backgrounds became Americans on Thursday morning.

One even kissed the American flag, his flag, seconds after becoming a citizen.

It happened during the first naturalization ceremony ever held in Cape May County, featuring 21 people from Mexico, China, Vietnam, Peru, Turkey, Colombia, Algeria, Venezuela, United Kingdom, Dominican Republic, Pakistan, Bulgaria, Belarus, Guatemala, Haiti and Russia.

Superior Court Judge Julio Mendez, himself a naturalized citizen, administered the Naturalization Oath while Superior Court Judge Carmen Alvarez, also a naturalized citizen, handed them their new citizen paperwork.

“The United States welcomes you with open arms. You also have to do your part servicing and protecting this country,” Mendez said.

The new citizens were encouraged to register to vote, serve on juries, pay their taxes, defend the Constitution and serve in the military while enjoying the fruits of citizenship.

“People speak of the American dream. It’s there for every one of you,” Mendez said.

That was the lure for Viktoryia Belahryvaya,” a 25-year-old native of Belarus, who serves with the New Jersey National Guard while working as a server at the Washington Inn in Cape May.

“This is one of the steps to achieve my dream. My dream is to have opportunities in life the U.S. can offer. The American dream is to achieve my goals and be happy,” Belahryvaya said.

Each new citizen had a unique story. Danilo Antonio Mella, 53, came to the U.S. from the Dominican Republic and settled in Absecon in 1988. His late wife was a U.S. citizen. So is his sister. His daughter was born here. After half a life lived here, he decided to take the plunge.

“I thought I’d do it now. My wife passed away. All the members of my family are citizens,” Mella said.

Afterwards, he was one big smile.

“It’s a dream come true. It’s amazing. I can’t even describe it,” he said.

Adriana Gamarra, 25, of Galloway Township, came to the U.S. from Peru at the age of 12.

“I was raised here. This is all I know,” the Atlantic Cape Community College nursing student said.

More than half the new citizens registered to vote after the ceremony, including Gamarra. The League of Women Voters of Cape May County signed her up.

“I want to do everything I can. I’d like to be part of it,” Gamarra said.

Many already started living the American dream while they worked toward citizenship. Ala Aleksashina, of Belarus, came to the U.S. in 2002 as an exchange student and found work on the Wildwood Boardwalk. The Mays Landing resident worked as a maid and waitress before going to school to become a nurse. She is now is an AtlantiCare nurse, married to a U.S. citizen, and has two children, ages 2 and 3, born here.

“I applied in November, and in March they interviewed me. If it was quick, I wouldn’t remember it. It will settle in my mind later,” Aleksashina said.

The ceremony was timed with Law Day, established by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1958 as a day to celebrate the country’s heritage of liberty, justice and equality under the law.

Freeholder Director Gerald Thornton welcomed the new citizens, urging them to vote and participate in local government. He said they could even run for office someday.

“I urge you to participate in the political process. It’s the most important thing you can do,” Thornton said.

The new citizens got a crash course of sorts on being good citizens. Court Administrator Howard Berchtold explained the role of the jury at trials. Superior Court Judge Bernard DeLury said with citizenship come civic responsibilities, and he cited President George Washington as the perfect example.

He explained how to show patriotism, ranging from flying the American flag at their homes to observing a moment of silence at certain times. He said civic responsibility begins at the community level.

“Serve in a beach cleanup or a garden club. Join a volunteer fire company, rescue squad, church or fraternal organization. Serve at the polls on Election Day, or serve on a jury without thinking about ways to get out of it. This will make our nation greater,” DeLury said.

Berchtold and his two daughters, Lauren and Heather, led the crowd singing the national anthem. Jeff Lindsay, of the Cape May County Bar Association, handed out American flags to each new citizen as state Assemblyman Sam Fiocchi led them in a “God Bless the United States of America” prayer.

“These are our new citizens, our fellow citizens,” Berchtold said.

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