A hundred new U.S. citizens waved small American flags, grinning broadly and cheering after they repeated the oath of allegiance — their naturalization into the land of the free complete.

And to complete the patriotic mood, white and blue tapestries and banners proudly hung from the Utah Capitol's balconies in celebration of Flag Day.

Not only was the naturalization event held on the national holiday, but it kickstarted World Refugee Week, where Utahns and Americans come together to support and welcome refugees from different cultures.

The group of immigrants, their citizenship cemented during Wednesday's naturalization ceremony, came from 48 different countries — including Afghanistan, Liberia, Mexico, Tonga and Ukraine.

"I feel very happy about it. It's been a long journey," said Moroniah Olea, an immigrant from Mexico. Olea had attended school in the U.S. after serving a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — living in the U.S. for over seven years before becoming a citizen.

Another immigrant from Vietnam, Phuong Timmreck, beamed and clutched her citizenship certificate. "I just feel so happy," she said.

"It was a very special moment in my life — something that happened over 20 years ago, but it's something that I will never forget," said Mario Kljajo, a director of the Refugee Services Office and refugee from Bosnia.

However, the naturalization journey was not easy, Kljajo admitted. To become a naturalized citizen, he had to follow the laws and learn about U.S. history, geography and politics to pass the citizenship civics test.

"There's a lot to learn; there's all these things, and so they're preparing for a long time. And finally, once you get to this, it's sort of like a — just like a graduation," Kljajo said. "You finally get this opportunity to become a United States citizen, which is a once-in-a-lifetime experience."

Utah House Rep. Ray Ward, R-Bountiful, who is chairman of the Social Services Appropriations Subcommittee, said that the new citizens add beauty to Utah's cultural landscape.

"Our community really is a tapestry, right? Every little thread adds some color to it — every thread makes it stronger," Ward said. "No one of us is the overall picture but all together, we're good."

Citizen applicants wave American flags during a naturalization ceremony to become citizens of the United States at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Wednesday.
Citizen applicants wave American flags during a naturalization ceremony to become citizens of the United States at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Wednesday. | Laura Seitz, Deseret News

Kljajo also noted that Utah itself is welcoming to the refugee community. In fact, in this next year, Utah expects to resettle 1,200 refugees in its communities, according to a Utah Department of Workforce Services press release.

"It's known nationally as an extremely welcoming state, and that makes a huge difference," Kljajo said.

And resettling and naturalizing, while a tough transition, provides significant benefits to strengthen communities, according to Kljajo.

"It just makes us much richer as a community to be able to get to know each other, to learn more about each other, learn about different cultures, different experiences, and still we're all just one community. We're one country — we're one people," Kljajo said.

Desange Kuenihira, a refugee from Congo and naturalized citizen herself, added that while the immigrants renounced allegiance to their former countries, they should still celebrate their cultural heritage and use it to enrich the American experience.

"Today you renounced former citizenship to other countries. For some of you, that was an easy decision, and for some others that may have been a painful choice. Remember that, while you renounced your former citizenship, you did not give up your history or culture," Kuenihira said to the new U.S. citizens. "Your memory of family, friends, your music, your literature, your manners, please bring them. Those of us who have been American citizens for many years can learn from you."

Phuong Timmreck, originally from Vietnam, right, and Semisi Lafu, originally from Tonga, recite the oath of allegiance during a naturalization ceremony to become citizens of the United States at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, June 14, 2023. | Laura Seitz, Deseret News

Having had her own struggles with settling in the States, Kuenihira wrote about her struggles and successes in her new novel, "Undefeated Women." She added that women especially can express their voices and help change the political atmosphere for the better in their new country.

"You can make a difference in a lot of ways of sharing our culture, embracing where we come from, not only that — we can even make (a difference) maybe in the political world and changing things, and have a voice in there and have someone representing us," Kuenihira said.

The new citizens already have plans to help change their communities for the better. Long Nguyen, an immigrant from Vietnam and a current University of Utah student, is currently in his third year studying to be a game developer and hopes to continue to spread his knowledge.

"Hopefully, whenever I'm out of university, I'm able to contribute something to the rest of the country as a citizen of Utah," Nguyen said. "And then like, maybe make a bigger impact once I enter the world."

Ward encouraged fellow Utahns to honor and support the new citizens by going "out of your way to meet a refugee," he said.

To further celebrate Utah's immigrants, a Department of Workforce Services press release announced that Utah will celebrate the state's 65,000 refugees on Thursday and Friday in World Refugee Day celebrations at Big Cottonwood Regional Park in Millcreek. Festivities start Friday at 6 p.m. with food, music and family activities, the department said. On Saturday, from 11 a.m.-4 p.m., refugee youth soccer and volleyball tournaments will take place, as well as "around the world" booths that will teach about countries and cultures, with food trucks and refugee vendors selling their wares.

Cache Refugee and Immigrant Connection will host another World Refugee Day celebration Saturday in Logan.