"Mommy and daddy are going to be Americans today," 4-year-old Johan Smuts said as his geologist father Lourens and registered nurse mother Emmarentia Smuts joined 18 of Juneau's newest Americans in a naturalization ceremony in Juneau Federal Court on Friday.
The Smuts, from South Africa, also have another son Jacques, 1, and like to travel but have fallen in love with Alaska.
"We are stuck," Emmarentia said. "We love Alaska too much to move."
When husband Johan said the attraction was the beauty and the snow she giggled and said, "Oh you liar, it is the fishing."
They both laughed then and said Hand Troller's Cove was their favorite spot.
The stories and favorite spots of many in the ceremony officiated by the U.S. Magistrate Leslie Longenbaugh differed from person to person, but were connected by a love for Juneau and a desire to become Americans.
Christopher Jahans came to Juneau from Pakistan in 1984. A math teacher at University of Alaska Southeast, Jahans - who likes the mountains because they remind him of his former home - was going to celebrate modestly by heading back to the Juneau campus and continue a class.
"I really didn't belong to Pakistan," Jahans said. "I came here to study and the changing policies and climate in my country made it difficult to go back. Now, I am home again at last."
Shapoor Rowshan, a state employee, came to Juneau from Iran in 1978 for college and eventually earned his Ph.D. He was to be married at the time.
"I was going to go back home but the situation had changed," Rowshan, who is still single, said. "I could not go back and I have no family here. It is very risky to go back, no body knows what happens to people who go back. You lose connections after 23 years ... and culture values and connections to the past. I have new culture values and new human values here that are very good. I have always felt American. It is peaceful here with nice people and the tranquility of nature."
Born in Rhodesia before moving to South Africa, then Alaska, Bryan De Klerk is a level three rehabilitation therapist at Sitka's Hanson House. He is also in the Army National Guard and is hoping to join the U.S. Marshall's service to use his military expertise from both the U.S. and his former home.
"It is kind of surreal," De Klerk said of his new citizenship. "There are conflicting thoughts sure. There is that identity of where you grew up. It is not a safe country there anymore, though. Today feels good."
Constantino Mariano originally tried to come over from the Philippines 23 years ago. He has been in Juneau for seven years and said, "This has been the culmination of many years of efforts by our family, we have been working to come for a long time. Juneau is in the middle of the extremes. It is not too cold and easier to move about in than the big cities."
Originally from Argentina, Valeria de los Angeles Martinez came to Mississippi on a scholarship for field hockey, and met husband Luke Adams there. Adams teaches at Dzantik'i Heeni Middle School and is a coach for the Juneau-Douglas High School hockey and soccer teams. Martinez works for the Permanent Fund Corporation and has been in Juneau since 2001.
"He wants me to be a St. Louis Blues fan but they are not doing so well so it is hard," Martinez laughed. "I came from Ushuaia, the last city on the map near Antarctica, A place just like Juneau. I am finally able to say I am an American."
Rachell Lumbab, who met her husband when he visited the Philippines for college, came to Juneau in June 2007, works at True North Federal Credit Union and said she "loves the mountains and the view."
Fred Meyer employee Ninoska Hernandez came from the Dominican Republic in 2004, has 20-month-old twins Angel and Matthew, and said she "cannot wait to vote and enjoy more opportunity for everything."
The naturalization class also included Alberto Villaflor, Susan Gomez, Enrique Ruiz, Glady Taccad, Rowena de los Reyes Calderon, Michaela Kruse, Elizabeth Martinez Ruiz, Deborah Cabujat, J. Jesus Martinez Romero, Supalak Skeek, Nancy Corral Bolanos and Lori Higgins.
Longenbaugh opened the ceremonies by saying, "So often what happens in federal courtroom is a bad time in participants' lives. It is wonderful to be part of such a good time in your lives, and completely inspiring to see people born in different nations raise their hands and swear an oath to become citizens of the United States of America."
Longenbaugh has officiated naturalization ceremonies every two months for the last 2 1/2 years. Her 19-year-old son is a naturalized citizen, having been adopted as a child from Russia.
"It can get emotional when I think of his naturalization," she said.
Children adopted no longer go through a naturalization ceremony.
After being sworn in by Longenbaugh and receiving their certificates of citizenship from Immigration and Naturalization Service Officer Carla Poteet, the newest Americans received flags from Elks Lodge No. 420, Alaska flag pins from the Juneau Emblem Club No. 90, were serenaded by local singer David Abuhl, and aided in registering to vote by the League of Women Voters.
Capt. Norman "Buddy" Custard, who is the chief of staff for the 17th Coast Guard District, spoke at the event.
"This is a testament to the human spirit. This is the principle on how our country was founded. You have chosen America because of our beliefs in freedom, liberty, equality, and justice for all. America is now your country so do not hesitate to be a part of it. You have rights to vote and to have your voices heard."
Contact reporter Klas Stolpe at 523-2263 or at klas.stolpe@ juneauempire.com.