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Over 5,000 become citizens at Fenway

Number sworn in a record for Mass.

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By David Abel
Globe Staff / September 15, 2010

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As he recited the Pledge of Allegiance, the 36-year-old recent immigrant from Ghana stood ramrod, unblinking as he gazed at the American flag, his hand firmly over his heart.

It was a big day for Army Specialist Claude Joel Abraham, and not just because he was adding Lincoln to his last name.

After three years in the United States, the last of which he has spent as a transportation coordinator in the Army, the physicist stood with 5,188 other immigrants yesterday in the stands at Fenway Park in Boston, where federal officials swore them in as the nation’s citizens.

“I’m so proud, so excited,’’ the newly christened Abraham-Lincoln said. “I see this as a door, an opportunity, a gateway to become someone I want to be, and something I can transfer to my children and grandchildren. This is such a great opportunity, and now I have a say in what happens here.’’

He was one of 766 people who had their names changed yesterday. The new citizens came from 151 countries, from Afghanistan to the United Kingdom.

Janet Napolitano, Department of Homeland Security secretary, who presided over the event, said it was one of the largest naturalization ceremonies in US history and the largest in Massachusetts. It was the second naturalization ceremony at Fenway Park, where the Green Monster was draped in a massive flag and a recorded welcome video from President Obama played on the jumbotron in the outfield.

“I am proud to welcome these men and women who have come from all over the world to become the newest citizens of our nation,’’ Napolitano said. “Our social, economic, and civic vitality needs the contributions, the perspectives, and the experiences of all Americans, including our newest Americans.’’

Federal District Court Judge Nancy Gertner, who swore in the new citizens, asked each to stand when she named their native country. The audience roared, waving small flags, when she called Brazil, with a similar pride echoed when she called out the Dominican Republic, Haiti, and India.

Gertner spoke to the new citizens about how her grandparents emigrated from Eastern Europe, where they faced persecution for being Jewish. She spoke about how they prized their naturalization papers, in part because they allowed them to prove their citizenship in a country where discrimination persisted.

She urged the group to vote and take part in their new freedoms, including voicing dissent.

“We are not a perfect country, but we are a country of principle,’’ she said. “The principles on which our nation was established are liberty, democracy, equality, justice, and, above all, tolerance.’’

The ceremony was part of the annual celebration of Constitution Day and Citizenship Day. Constitution Week honors the signing of the Constitution on Sept. 17, 1787. From Sept. 13 to 24, an estimated 9,000 immigrants will become citizens at 63 ceremonies across the world.

The last time the oath of citizenship was administered at Fenway Park was in 2008, when more than 3,000 people from 140 countries took part in the ceremony.

At yesterday’s event, Napolitano recognized Dr. Rangita de Silva de Alwis, director of international human rights policy at Wellesley College, as an Outstanding American by Choice for championing human rights worldwide. She was born in Sri Lanka and naturalized as a US citizen on July 4.

After a brief rain shower sent many running for cover beneath the stands, Yonas Tamene, 37, who grew up in Ethiopia but has lived in the States for 20 years, said he was ready to become a citizen.

The information technology consultant, who graduated from the University of Massachusetts Boston, said he looked forward to getting a US passport, which he expects will make it easier for him to travel abroad.

“This means freedom to me,’’ he said. “Also, if I go to Arizona now, I know I’m going to be OK,’’ he said, referring to that state’s controversial new law authorizing police to check whether someone they stop is legally in the country.

Among those attending the ceremony was Raymond L. Flynn, former mayor of Boston, whose son-in-law was sworn in, having moved to the United States from Ireland 12 years ago. He said his son-in-law, Gerard O’Doherty, probably knows more about US history than he did after studying for the citizenship test.

“He has been looking forward to this day for a long time,’’ said Flynn, noting the process became more difficult after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

Katyalina Barbosa moved to Leominster from Brazil 12 years ago and said she became a citizen as quickly as she could. The 31-year-old mother of two said she hopes to give her children more opportunities.

“This just gave us a lot more security,’’ she said. “It’s like I have achieved something I’ve been awaiting for a long time. It’s a great feeling to be 100 percent American.’’

At the conclusion of the ceremony, after singing “America the Beautiful’’ and other patriotic songs, the crowd filed out of the park to another anthem, one perhaps more important to those living in the area: Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline.’’

David Abel can be reached at dabel@globe.com.

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