GALLOWAY TOWNSHIP — Twins Marina and Mariam Eskander were 11 years old when they and their mother, Manar, moved to South Jersey from a busy city in Egypt.
“It was scary quiet,” 18-year-old Marina remembered.
“To me, it was so cool because I love the green open areas,” said Manar, 43, of Egg Harbor Township.
Eight years later, on Wednesday, the family became U.S. citizens. The Eskanders were among 28 people from 20 countries across four continents gathered inside the Campus Center at Stockton University in Galloway Township to take the oath of citizenship.
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“Do you remember the first day you came to this country?” asked Ya-Mei Chen, director of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Mount Laurel Field Office.
Chen recalled the plane ride into Detroit, her two suitcases and the box that contained her rice cooker. She remembered the customs officer asking her whether there was any rice inside the cooker, and she laughed. And Chen remembers the flat plains visible from the airplane window as she took another flight into Ohio, a much different scene from the mountains of Taiwan where she grew up.
Chen recalled her first trip to McDonald’s, the confusion as she stared up at the menu board, and her anxiety as the cashier and the other customers stared at her, waiting for her to order.
“That’s the challenges we face every day,” Chen told the candidates for citizenship. “It doesn’t matter what we face, we make it work.”
Each year, 1 million immigrants become U.S. citizens and 10,000 of them are in South Jersey, said Keith Dorr of the USCIS Mount Laurel office.
Each candidate for naturalization has a different background and a different story of how they came to apply for citizenship.
Ramon Rivera, 45, came to Hammonton from Mexico 28 years ago.
“My uncle, he was living in Florida,” Rivera said. “He moved to Hammonton for the blueberries.”
In 1991, Rivera followed suit and stayed. He said Wednesday that becoming a U.S. citizen was the “biggest dream” of his life.
“This country is the best in the world. It gave me two beautiful daughters. My wife is from Puerto Rico,” Rivera said, smiling and holding a tiny U.S. flag between his hands. “I feel so happy.”
For the Eskander twins, both freshmen at Stockton, growing up in the U.S. made them feel like U.S. citizens already. They decided to apply for citizenship because they were eager to have the same rights and privileges as their native-born friends, such as voting and traveling.
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Mariam is already politically active. She is studying political science and campaigned for U.S. Rep. Jeff Van Drew, D-2nd, during the election in November even though she couldn’t yet vote.
Marina is studying biology and hopes to go to medical school after Stockton, although she is unsure what type of doctor she would become.
Manar said she made it a point to become a part of her community early on.
“I wanted to get really involved in the society and not be a stranger,” she said, noting she has fully embraced U.S. traditions and holidays, especially Thanksgiving.
On Wednesday, she was happy to make it official.
“I’m really happy and comfortable. It feels comfortable,” Manar said.