29 become U.S. citizens at Fort Vancouver ceremony




American flags were handed out Friday at the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services naturalization ceremony at the Fort Vancouver National Historic Site.

Vancouver businessman Elie Kassab recalled Friday the moment he knew he wanted to go to the United States.

It was 1958, and he was 7 years old. He and his family went to marvel at a fleet of U.S. Navy ships that had arrived in Beirut, Lebanon. As they were walking around, a U.S. Marine handed Kassab a candy bar.

“I don’t know why he picked me,” Kassab told the crowd at the Fort Vancouver National Historic Site.

On the way home, Kassab held his father’s hand and used his free hand to eat the salty, peanuts-and-caramel bar. He turned to look back at the ships and admire an unfurled red, white and blue flag.

At that moment, he said, his dream to come to America was born.

Kassab’s remarks were part of his keynote address at a naturalization ceremony Friday morning during which 29 people from 10 nations became U.S. citizens. This was the fourth year for the ceremony at Fort Vancouver, and it’s timed to coincide with Constitution Week.

Evelyn Sahli, director of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services office in Portland, led the candidates in reciting the Oath of Allegiance.

During the pledge, candidates promised to renounce their home nations and support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States.

The new citizens came from China, Guatemala, Mexico, Moldova, Nepal, the Philippines, Romania, Russia, South Korea and Ukraine.

After the oath, they were called one by one to receive their certificate of naturalization, a small American flag and a PayDay candy bar from Kassab, who said he wanted to pass out the type of candy bar he was given decades ago by the Marine.

Kassab came to America in 1971. With his brother Joe, he opened a jewelry store. At night they bused tables in restaurants. They were later joined by their parents and two other brothers. After getting out of the jewelry business, he started Prestige Development. His latest project, the $16 million Prestige Plaza, is set to open in January in downtown.

He encouraged the new citizens to be active in the community, to vote, maybe even seek local office.

“When the United States government grants you citizenship, it’s giving you something very, very precious,” said Kassab, who became naturalized in 1980.

“Giving time is more important than giving money,” he said. He also urged them to “learn the language,” telling them his mother learned English at age 55 by watching “Sesame Street” on PBS.

“Go live the American dream,” he said. “This is the greatest country on Earth.”

Among those taking the oath Friday were Amelia Labayen and her husband, Ferdinand Guce, who are from the Philippines and live in Clackamas County, Ore. Joining them in becoming citizens were their children. Daughter Daena, 11, and son Leonardo, 7, led the audience in reciting the Pledge of Allegiance.

“I feel proud,” Labayen said.

Luis Becarra, who lives in Vancouver, came to the United States in 1997 from Mexico. Placing his hand over his heart and reciting the Pledge of Allegiance “was wonderful,” he said.

Tracy Fortmann, superintendent of the Fort Vancouver National Historic Site, told the audience that the United States is so diverse it can be overwhelming.

“But we’re all Americans … diversity is our strength,” she said.

Stephanie Rice: 360-735-4508 or stephanie.rice@columbian.com.