Takry Khamwandee was rocking her 8-month-old baby, but when it was time to stand, she passed little Prim to her husband.

Alan Arnott cradled the infant in his left arm and held up his cellphone to take a video of his wife with his right hand. Khamwandee raised her own right hand and solemnly repeated the words. Her voice was one of 39 in the auditorium at Lyman Moore Middle School on Friday, and at the end of the oath, they would all be citizens of the United States.

“I hereby declare,” the chorus of voices began.

Khamwandee, 31, was born in Thailand. Her family had ambitions to open a school, and she planned to be an English teacher there. As a young university student, she wanted to travel, and her mother wanted her to learn English from a native speaker. So Khamwandee visited the United States several times as an exchange student.

Her first trip was to Louisiana in 2008. But the southern accents immediately confounded her, and she called home in distress.

“I was like, Mom, I don’t think this is a place I will learn English,” she said.

Her next trips were to Maine in 2009, 2010 and 2011. Her English was improving, but she still planned to be a teacher in her home country. Then, during summer 2010, she was working at Dunkin’ Donuts in Westbrook.

“I expected to go home, but plans changed when I met this guy,” she said, smiling at her husband.

Arnott, 32, saw a picture of her on his cousin’s Facebook page. He sent her a friend request, which she ignored for a month.

“It was pending for a while,” Khamwandee joked.

When she finally accepted, Arnott invited her golfing for the first time, and they quickly connected over a shared love of sports. The couple married in 2011 in Gorham, and she became a permanent resident of the United States. They both worked at Idexx Labratories in Westbrook, traveled and tried new restaurants every week.

Even when married to an American, the process of gaining citizenship is a long one. The spouse of a U.S. citizen is eligible for permanent residence, also called a green card. Once Khamwandee held a green card for three years, she could apply for naturalization. Federal immigration law also requires people applying for citizenship to pay filing fees, submit to a background check and interview, and pass English and American civics tests.

Khamwandee said becoming a citizen will allow her to apply to a broader range of jobs, so she saw it as an important step in her career. She wants to vote in elections in the United States, and she planned to fill out a voter registration card in the middle school lobby as soon as the citizenship ceremony was done. And an American passport will make travel – her passion – easier. The couple plan to go to Thailand to introduce their daughter to her extended family members, who have met Prim only by video chat.

“She Skypes as often as possible,” Arnott said.

Khamwandee was only 32 weeks pregnant when she went into early labor. Prim spent nearly two months in the hospital when she was born, but now the family is home together in Gorham. The little girl loves Disney classics like “Lion King” and “Beauty and the Beast,” and Khamwandee used to play the soundtracks to calm her kicking in the womb. To get Prim to smile during family photos after the ceremony, Khamwandee sang, “Be our guest, be our guest.”

Instead of eating out at DiMillo’s in Portland or another one of their favorite seafood places Sunday, the couple said they would simply spend their first Mother’s Day doting on their new daughter.

“She’s the obligation right now,” Arnott said.

In Thailand, Mother’s Day is celebrated in August. When he first learned about his wife’s culture, Arnott said he was impressed by the importance of family, even extended cousins. When she first met her husband, Khamwandee said she loved the way he valued his own loved ones.

“We both work hard for our family,” she said.

Friday was about celebrating that hard work.

The candidates for citizenship came from 26 nations: Bosnia and Herzegovina, Canada, People’s Republic of China, Congo Kinshasa, Djibouti, Egypt, Ethiopia, France, India, Iran, Iraq, Italy, Kenya, Mexico, Peru, Philippines, Republic of China-Taiwan, Russia, Rwanda, Somalia, South Africa, Sudan, Sweden, Thailand, United Kingdom and Vietnam. Their countries of origin were printed on sparkling tags pinned to their shirts.

Students from the middle school and neighboring Lyseth Elementary School held handmade signs that read “Welcome to the USA.” The middle school chorus sang “My Country ‘Tis of Thee.” Young students recited a poem. A U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services employee led the oath of allegiance, the rite of passage into citizenship.

At the last line, the audience broke into applause. Students stood in the bleachers and waved their signs. Men and women wiped tears from their eyes. Khamwandee reached over to her husband and picked up Prim with both hands.

As the little girl clutched an American flag in her tiny fingers, mother lifted daughter in the air in celebration.

Megan Doyle can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: megan_e_doyle

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