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SALT LAKE CITY — Gaining American citizenship has put Mary Acu Atak back on track to work as a nurse.
Atak, who was a nurse in war-torn South Sudan before coming to the United States, was among 454 people from 83 countries sworn in as American citizens Monday morning during ceremonies at Abravanel Hall.
“I am now going on to be a nurse in America,” she said.
Atak said she has been in the United States for eight years. To help learn English, she enrolled at Salt Lake Community College.
One of her instructors, Gordon Dunne, was in the audience. Dunne, who is from Dublin, Ireland, was also sworn in as a new U.S. citizen.
“I saw several other of my students as well,” said Dunne, who teaches reading, writing and composition.
U.S. District Judge David Sam, who presided over the ceremony, said the occasion was particularly meaningful to him because his parents were immigrants from Romania.
In fact, his mother and father were from the same peasant village, born on the same day and lived across the street from one another.
Although his father’s surname was Sirb, it was recorded on his citizenship documents as Sam.
“My name is Sam. I’m here sent to you by Uncle Sam, my uncle,” the judge said, noting that his father was proud that the family bore the same name as the personification of the American government.
Sam said he has “Uncle Sam” recruiting posters from World War I and World War II in his chambers.
Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams said it was fitting to hold the naturalization ceremony in a concert hall named for immigrant Maurice Abravanel, longtime conductor of the Utah Symphony.
Abravanel descended from a long line of Sephardic Jews who were eventually expelled from Spain. He was born in Greece but grew up in Lausanne, Switzerland, and had multiple conducting assignments in Germany but moved his career to the United States when the Nazis rose to power.
In 1943, Abravanel became a U.S. citizen. Four years later, he became the conductor of the Utah Symphony.
McAdams urged the new American citizens to register to vote and to participate in upcoming elections.
“After today, you become my boss,” McAdams said.
Some 50,000 refugees have been resettled in Salt Lake County since the end of the Vietnam War, roughly 5 percent of the county’s population, McAdams said in an interview prior to Monday's event.
Naturalization ceremonies are inspiring because “you see people of so many backgrounds coming together as American citizens. Their diversity adds to our strength,” McAdams said.
Refugees and other legal residents must live in the country for five years to be eligible to apply for citizenship.
They are required to pass a citizenship test that includes civics questions. Applicants must also demonstrate they can speak, write and read English.
"This is such a great country. To see people grasping the American dream helps me to value it more myself," McAdams said.
Contributing: Ashley Kewish