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Proud to be an American

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Three women share their experiences of earning their U.S. citizenship

The fourth of July is a time to celebrate America's independence. It's a time when we extend our hand to thank all the service men and women who've fought to keep this country a free nation. And it's a day to show our gratitude and honor for the sacrifices made by our forefathers in order for this country to be what it is today. However, there are thousands of Americans out there who haven't been as blessed to be born and raised in America, yet these individuals have as much, if not more, love for the red, white and blue than those of us who have only ever known this way of life. Below are the stories of three different women who were once considered aliens but have sacrificed, worked and studied hard to make it to this country that they now proudly call home.

BichNgaBich Nga Burrill - Winterport

In 1975, at 25 years of age, Bich Nga Burrill hopped on a U.S. military aircraft in her homeland of Vietnam on a journey to a better life. That plane eventually touched down in Guam in the wee hours of the morning. Almost everyone else on the plane but her, Burrill said, was traveling with an American husband. This young Vietnamese realized in that very moment, she was truly on her own.

"I was scared to death. I had no paperwork. I was the only one with no one," Burrill said. "I was just lucky to get out."

At the military base in Guam, Burrill and the rest of the passengers were given a cup of pea soup and directed to the barracks, where they were encouraged to get some sleep. But wide awake and scared, Burrill couldn't seem to find rest. So instead she sat at the edge of the water where she could no longer hold back her tears.

"I sat and cried thinking of my family," Burrill explained. "Then in the morning, an MP came by and he gave me a can of Coke."

Once she pulled herself together she headed back to the temporary embassy, as she called it, that was set up on base. There, she watched men filling out the proper paperwork to bring their wives back to America.

"I go in and I copy a guy in front of me and what he's writing on the paperwork," Burrill explained. "Then I go to a Vietnamese brother and sister who are sitting there [giving out alien registration numbers] and I tell them I need to get out. But they say, 'See that man over there, he'll check all the paperwork and give you a stamp [first].'"

As much as she begged and pleaded, Burrill was told again and again by the brother and sister, she had to get her paperwork stamped before she could be granted an alien registration number. And knowing she had no husband to get her into America, Burrill knew her chances of getting that stamp were slim. However, she stood in line anyway behind the man whose paperwork she copied.

"The man in front was trying to get his wife and mistress [who he said would be his secretary] out of the country at the same time. Right then the wife found out that was his mistress and hit her in the face with her high heel shoe and blood was everyone," Burrill explained. "So while the man who was stamping the paperwork was helping the bleeding woman, I took the opportunity, walked past them and stamped my own paperwork with the embassy stamp."

With that and her alien registration number, Burrill was finally on her way to America.

"We flew to Tokyo where we refueled, and then we landed at Travis Air Force base in California," she said.

It was there she met a 17-year-old girl named Lan whose much older America husband was in the hospital dying. That man's brother and girlfriend took Burrill and Lan in, and soon afterwards Burrill found work.

"I found a job at Max Factor cosmetics. That was my first job," she said. "I didn't know how important that stamp was until I needed that job. Without the stamp I couldn't get an alien registration number or social security number, which is what put me in this country legally."

Then in 1977, Burrill married and moved to Maine.

"I worked hard all the time and I learned if you work in this country and work hard you'll never go hungry," Burrill explained.

It may have been a struggle mixed with a bit of luck that finally allowed Bich Nga Burrill to become an American. But it's something she'd willingly do all over again to live in this country.

"I don't miss Vietnam," she said. "I vote, I do everything that comes my way. It's an honor to be an American. Those people born in this country should not take it for granted."

Andrea-PAndrea White - Levant

Andrea White's experience of becoming an American was less dramatic than Bich Nga Burrill. This German native came to America in 1997 after the 21-year-old married an American service man. However, White waited over 10 years before applying to become a U.S. citizen.

"The reason I didn't do it a while back is I wanted to keep my German citizenship," White explained. "If I didn't keep the form or document explaining why I want dual citizenship and just applied for my American citizenship, I would've lost my German citizenship right then and there."

Since White returns to Germany every other year to visit her family, it was important to her to remain a German citizen as well. So she held an alien registration card until Nov. 18, 2009. That was the day she completed all the necessary paperwork to finally become an American.

"Usually they have a ceremony in Bangor, but mine was in Portland. When we got sworn in, we got a certification of naturalization," White explained.

During her swearing in, she was asked to repeat the Pledge of Allegiance. White said it wasn't until she was driving home that the significance of the day finally hit her.

"It's pretty cool stuff. You don't think about it, but then it's like 'Wow, I'm a U.S. citizen now,'" she said. "To me, I wanted to be a U.S. citizen because I actually have more rights. I can vote. I never voted back home."

Now, she makes it a priority to vote whenever the opportunity arises.

"I'm thankful every day," White said. "The U.S. is my home. I'd never go back. I'm too Americanized now."

This Levant resident said one thing she has observed over the years is that other countries have the wrong picture of America.

"Everyone claims America is the richest country in the world. They think we have all this money, but we're people like everyone else. There's a middle class and there's poor people, just like in Europe."

Belinda-011Belinda Wee - Palmyra

Belinda Wee had a much different reason for making her way to America. She came to the U.S. from Singapore 17 years ago in hopes of a better education. Through a student visa, Wee was able to attend a small Presbyterian college in Arkansas. A little while later she transferred to Purdue University in Indiana, where she studied and earned her degree in hotel management.

"I was ready to go home and tough it out there. I tested my degree and it took off. A degree from the U.S., especially for people who knew Purdue, was a great selling tool in Asia," Wee said. "I was one of the first movers and shakers to return to Singapore with a degree in hotel management. My dad was so devastated. He thought, 'What was a woman doing in the hotel business?' He wasn't happy, but I wasn't going to change my mind."

After she completed her contract with Holiday Inn Worldwide, Wee returned to the U.S. in 1995, where she continued her education in Minnesota.

"I had to take the GRE. When I applied, I was accepted and given a research assistantship. I was so thrilled it was like winning the lottery. I then went on to do my PhD and ended up in Maine," she said. "When 9/11 occurred I was still a student. I just stood in my living room and I started crying. When I see the news of a soldier's body that is shipped here, I cry for the families, because I feel like I'm one of the people here."

This year Wee got married, and although her green card doesn't expire until 2020, she is hoping to use the summer to complete her paperwork to finally become an American citizen.

"I've spent so much of my life in this country. It really is the land of opportunity when Ronald Regan, an actor, can become president of the country," she said.

And it's a place that has truly offered her more opportunities and freedoms, she said, than her homeland of Singapore.

"My father didn't want me to take a summer job waitressing or working in a fast food restaurant [when I was growing up] because he'd lose face being a businessman. It's a very status conscious country. I had to be careful who I was seen hanging out with or dating. I had to drive the right car. Here, no one cares if I go to a yard sale or Goodwill to buy a pair of jeans," Wee explained.

Now, Wee would like to spend the rest of her life giving back to this country that's given her so much.

"Being a permanent resident, I don't have the right to vote. That's why I feel if I'm going to make this my home and be buried here, I want to make an impact on everything that affects me. I get irritated when Americans don't go vote. That's your privilege and right. Do something," she said.

To learn more about applying for an American citizenship, log onto www.uscis.gov.

Last modified on Tuesday, 03 July 2012 12:09

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