PORTLAND — Diana Gensitskaya doesn’t remember anything about Ukraine. When her family left the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics in 1990 to seek refuge in the United States, she was just a baby, one of four children her parents brought to seek a better life.
The Gensitskayas wanted to live in a country where they could practice their Pentecostal Christian faith freely and live without fear of political persecution. So they came to the United States, first to Seattle, and then to Clark County.
Now 23, Gensitskaya can finally call the United States her home for good.
“I was a guest for 22 years,” she said. “I’m one of you guys now.”
She was one of 20 refugees who became naturalized citizens on Thursday in a special ceremony at the Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization center in Northeast Portland to honor World Refugee Day.
The United Nations has designated June 20 as a day to call attention to the plight of 14 million refugees worldwide who were forced to flee their homes under threat of persecution and violence.
The immigrants who became citizens in the Portland ceremony came from various countries, including Somalia, Cuba, Liberia, Cambodia, Togo, Turkey and Haiti. The plurality, however, came from Ukraine; nine of the 20 new citizens were born there.
About 2.6 percent of Clark County’s residents were born in former Soviet republics, according to 2011 U.S. Census Bureau estimates, the most recent available. A good chunk of those — 5,374 people, or 1.3 percent of the county’s total — were born in Ukraine. The Ukrainian-born population jumped 67 percent between 2000 and 2011.
After moving here, Gensitskaya’s parents went on to have more children. Gensitskaya has nine brothers and sisters. The children didn’t join clubs at school. They helped with the family’s housekeeping and an adult family home businesses.
Gensitskaya graduated from Prairie High School. She started working at the Camas Hotel two years ago as a housekeeper and worked her way up to her current a job as the on-site manager.
Gensitskaya said she’s grateful to her parents for setting her on the path to becoming a U.S. citizen. She said her mother and father did their best to integrate into American culture.
Gensitskaya herself speaks flawless English. “I have a horrible accent in Russian,” she said.
Although the family moved here to escape persecution, they encountered a new sort here. The household once received an angry anonymous phone call from someone who barked, “Go back to Russia.”
Nonetheless, Gensitskaya wanted to be a citizen in the only country she had known. In February, she began the process of applying for naturalization. She filed the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service’s N-400 form, paid the $595 filing fee and an $85 fee for biometrics processing, and then took the necessary tests.
After taking the oath in which she absolutely and entirely renounced and abjured “all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen,” she became an American.
“This is now officially your country,” President Barack Obama said in a video recording played for the new citizens.
“I’m thankful,” Gensitskaya said. “I’m happy.”
Erin Middlewood: 360-735-4516; firstname.lastname@example.org