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New citizens ready to cast their first ballots in Willmar

WILLMAR -- Halima Wehlie arrived in the United States from Yemen on Sept. 19, 2008, a widow with eight children. "I was very excited," she said this week. "That's why I still have that day in my head." Eight years later, Wehlie is a U.S. citizen ...

Mouna Kahin, center, translates Wednesday for Zeynaba Siyad, right, during a discussion about voting at Jefferson Learning Center in Willmar. Siyad says she feels it is her responsibility to vote now that she is a citizen. Siyad's husband, Yasin Omar, is at left. Briana Sanchez / Tribune
Mouna Kahin, center, translates Wednesday for Zeynaba Siyad, right, during a discussion about voting at Jefferson Learning Center in Willmar. Siyad says she feels it is her responsibility to vote now that she is a citizen. Siyad's husband, Yasin Omar, is at left. Briana Sanchez / Tribune

WILLMAR - Halima Wehlie arrived in the United States from Yemen on Sept. 19, 2008, a widow with eight children.

"I was very excited," she said this week. "That's why I still have that day in my head."

Eight years later, Wehlie is a U.S. citizen preparing to cast her first vote for president. She became a citizen in 2014 and has voted in a school election already.

Lately her days consist of working as a housekeeper at a local hotel, coming home to say her prayers and then turning on the television to watch election news. She also helps look after her young grandchildren, nieces and nephews.

Earlier this week, she had a handful of tiny children visiting her apartment, and the TV was tuned to cable news station MSNBC. Her niece Ayan Muktar acted as a translator for an interview, but she watches English-speaking TV. "I understand more than I speak," she said.

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When she became a citizen, she said, "I felt happy to have a lot of rights I didn't have before, like I can vote."

Wehlie is one of a number of new citizens preparing to vote in their first major U.S. election.

At Jefferson Learning Center in Willmar, three Adult Basic Education students talked about preparing to vote for the first time.

Ibrahim Yusuf, Zeynaba Siyad and Yasin Omar all said they are looking forward to having a voice in their adopted country.

Yusuf became a citizen in June and has lived in Willmar nearly seven years. He said he's been watching campaigns at all levels and is ready to make his choices.

For Siyad, becoming a citizen made her a part of America. "We've lived here, and we feel like we are part of the American culture," she said. Becoming a citizen was a way to "complete being American." She became a citizen in June 2015 and has lived in Willmar about six and a half years.

Omar, Siyad's husband, became a citizen in June this year. "I feel like now I have a voice in America," he said. "My voice is counting; to me it is a good feeling."

Yusuf said he sees his vote as a way to do what's best for the Willmar community and his country.

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"We are a part of America, since this became our home," Yusuf said. "It does not matter if you are Muslim, Christian or Jew, it just matters what is best for everyone."

It shouldn't come as a surprise that these new citizens are not fans of Republican nominee Donald Trump, whose campaign has been associated with anti-Muslim rhetoric.

When she hears what Trump or his supporters say, Wehlie said, "my heart aches."

It hurts her feelings to be lumped in with people who commit terrorist attacks. "That's not who we are," she said. Her niece Muktar said, "These people do not represent us; they kill more Muslims."

Yusuf said he is disappointed in the tone of this campaign compared to the 2012 presidential race. Omar commented that neither President Barack Obama nor Republican Mitt Romney said he would kick a group of people out of the United States if he became president.

"We all need to live together peacefully, work together peacefully," Yusuf said. "How can I vote for someone who is against me?"

Adult Basic Education translator Mouna Kahin, also a naturalized citizen, said her 6-year-old son, who is a natural born citizen, became worried about what he heard on the news. "We don't watch anymore," she said.

All of the new citizens studied government, history and geography to pass their citizenship tests. Before they can take an oath of citizenship, they must be able to speak with an examiner in English, write English phrases dictated by the examiner and answer up to 10 questions from a 100-question citizenship test. They must get at least six answers correct.

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It costs nearly $700 to take the test. If they try and fail twice, they have to pay the fee again. That's why Adult Basic Education instructor Bonnie Pehrson urges students to study hard and make sure they are ready when they take the test.

When immigrants become naturalized citizens, their children younger than 18 automatically become citizens. Those who are 18 or older must go through the citizenship process on their own.

For those interested in more details about the process of becoming a naturalized citizen, go to www.uscis.gov .

To look at the citizenship test's 100 questions, go to  bit.ly/2fzUKUS .

In 42 years in the newspaper industry, Linda Vanderwerf has worked at several daily newspapers in Minnesota, including the Mesabi Daily News, now called the Mesabi Tribune in Virginia. Previously, she worked for the Las Cruces Sun-News in New Mexico and the Rapid City Journal in the Black Hills of South Dakota. She has been a reporter at the West Central Tribune for nearly 27 years.

Vanderwerf can be reached at email: lvanderwerf@wctrib.com or phone 320-214-4340
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