In 2000, the odds that 2-year-old Altynay Nurpeissova would one day be sitting in the Old Sacramento Schoolhouse Museum to swear allegiance to the United States were about 1 percent.
Now 15 and a junior at Davis Senior High School, Nurpeissova joined 10 other children and teenagers from all over the world Wednesday morning to participate in a special naturalization ceremony timed to coincide with Independence Day. All the participants technically became citizens when their parents were naturalized over the last few months, but the ceremony gives them the chance to receive their own certificates of citizenship with a little pomp and circumstance.
Inside the one-room schoolhouse, a nostalgic icon of America’s past, the new citizens placed their hands on their hearts as they listened to “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Born in Kazakhstan, Vietnam, Israel, Iraq, Syria, the Philippines, India and Ukraine, they swore to defend the Constitution and pledged allegiance to the flag of the United States of America. Then they posed for photos, donned red, white and blue leis and munched on similarly colored cookies.
“I’m really excited to be a citizen,” Nurpeissova said after the event. “And proud to be the only immigrant here from my country.”
Nurpeissova and her family came to the United States after they won green cards in the Diversity Immigrant Visa program, also known as the “green card lottery.” Each year, 50,000 people from countries underrepresented among applicants for visas via the usual avenues – employment and family ties – can win entry to the U.S. via the lottery. In 2012, the last year for which complete data on the number of applicants and winners from each country is available, 13,476 Kazakhs entered the lottery. Just 237 won and were able to meet the requirements to obtain visas. Worldwide in 2007, about 14.8 million applied for the 50,000 spots.
The Nurpeissovas almost weren’t among the applicants in 2000. Altynay’s mother, Saule Nurpeissova, owned a large store in Kazakhstan. One day, a woman came to the store and asked permission to hang an advertisement on the wall. Nurpeissova agreed. A few days later, the woman came back with a thank you gift: an application for the green card lottery with Saule Nurpeissova’s information mostly filled in.
“It was my dream to live in the United States,” Saule Nurpeissova said. So she decided to complete, sign and submit the application.
A few months later, the family got a phone call saying they had won the lottery. By 2002, all four Nurpeissovas, including Saule’s husband and son, had moved to San Francisco. They chose the Bay Area because it was the home of the only semi-acquaintance they had in all of North America, the daughter of friends back in Kazakhstan. She picked them up at the airport and helped them find an apartment. After that, they were mostly on their own; the family no longer remembers her name.
“The first six months, I just pointed at what I wanted at the store,” Saule Nurpeissova said.
The family intentionally chose to settle in an area with few Russian speakers. Saule wanted to be sure she and her children would be forced to learn English.
Altynay Nurpeissova was just 4 when her family came to the U.S. At preschool, she learned English easily.
“I was young,” she said. “I didn’t experience the hardships my parents did.”
Now fluent in English, Saule Nurpeissova has worked at the Cache Creek Casino in Yolo County for seven years. Her son, now 25, is a college graduate and the last member of the family to retain Kazakh citizenship.
Altynay Nurpeissova wants to study chemistry when she goes to college in a few years.
“She’s an A-plus student,” Saule said, beaming at her American daughter.
One school desk row in front of the Nurpeissovas sat 11-year-old Zain Jabbar and his mother, Hanah Jasim. Jasim fled Baghdad as a refugee in May 2008 with Zain, her mother and her two older children. Her husband had worked for the U.S. government in Iraq; in March 2007, terrorists killed him at the family’s home. Zain witnessed his father’s murder.
On Wednesday, he didn’t want to be interviewed at first. His mother urged him to speak up.
“I told him, ‘You need to be strong, you need to be proud,’ ” Jasim said.
She and her family have lived in the Sacramento area since late 2008 after first settling in Virginia for nine months. She has her cosmetology license and just bought a house in Citrus Heights. On Friday night, the family plans to go to Cal Expo for Fourth of July fireworks.
Zain was the last of his immediate family to become a U.S. citizen, but he speaks English like his classmates who were born here.
“She still has an accent,” he said of his mother.
Jasim said she doesn’t think she will ever go back to Iraq. She fears her husband’s killers will remember the family name.
“Here, we are OK,” Jasim said. “We’re getting school. At least we’re safe. I just want to say thank you to America for saving us.”
At the end of the ceremony, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services officer Patsy Johnson thanked the people filling the schoolhouse.
“Thank you for choosing to become Americans,” Johnson said. Just before the families left the schoolhouse to return to the business of everyday life in the United States, she added, “And kids, if you want to thank your parents, clean your room or wash the car.”
Call The Bee’s Isabelle Taft, (916) 321-1101.