A gleaming white smile breaks across Adetola "Tola" Olayefun's face as a stream of five elementary-age boys and girls stroll into the burnt red courtroom rotunda. These children, accompanied by several teachers, are from St. John School in Ellisville, where Olayefun works as a janitor.
They've come to celebrate Olayefun's new United States citizenship.
Olayefun, a native of Nigeria, was selected along with nine other immigrants to participate in the June 12 Naturalization Ceremony at the Old Courthouse downtown. U.S. District Court Judge John A. Ross presided over the event.
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The immigrants come from countries around the world — Bosnia, China, Albania, Iraq. They have never met each other before, but on this day, they will all become American citizens together.
Olayefun's journey to citizenship started in 2000, when he came to work in America on a visa. He has been working at St. John since December 2012, building strong relationships with the students and staff at the Lutheran elementary school, thanks to his ever-present smile and penchant for high-fives.
"Tola is a wonderful man. The kids just love him; they just think he's fantastic," says fourth-grade teacher Jennifer Holshouser, one of eighteen St. John School staff members who came to the courthouse to support Olayefun. "The kids just rallied around him, and when they found out that he had passed the test and was getting his citizenship, we were all just really excited for him."
In 2013, 779,929 immigrants were naturalized as United States citizens. That includes 4,817 in Missouri — more than half of whom were residing in St. Louis, according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
Getting to that point is not an easy task.
Immigrants hoping to become naturalized citizens must be at least eighteen years of age. They must have been living in the United States for five years as a lawful permanent resident, and have been physically present in the U.S. for at least 30 months. They must also have "good and moral character," be able to speak, read, write and understand the English language, and have basic knowledge of U.S. government and history.
The ten-step process of proving themselves ready includes preparing and submitting an application, getting fingerprinted, undergoing an extensive background check, completing an interview with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services office, and passing English and civics tests.
The process takes an average of six months, depending on the person and the location. In areas with heavy immigrant populations, it can take several years.
"It really is a journey," says Judge Ross. "And the naturalization ceremony is the final step in that journey. It's a celebration of their efforts in becoming a citizen. It serves as a reminder to all of us as United States citizens when you see what people do in order to become a citizen and what is involved in citizenship."
Antoneta Haxholli, a blonde woman from Albania, sits third from the left in the first row of new citizens. Her brightly patterned skirt matches her glowing face as she nods at everything Judge Ross says in his introduction to the ceremony.
For Haxholli, completing the civics and English tests and passing the interview were simple. She is nearly fluent in English.
"The interview is easy. I mean, if you speak English, then it's easy. If not, then you will not understand anything," Haxholli explains.
Haxholli and her husband came to St. Louis from Albania several years ago to pursue a better life.
"My sister-in-law lives here, so she was always telling us that, 'It's good here, you live good,' and she always said good things about St. Louis and America, so that's why we decided to move here," Haxholli says.
But an immigrant's story is almost always a difficult one.
"We had jobs in Albania and were living very good there, and when we came here, we had to face a lot of looking for jobs, finding and not finding one, so you have to start from zero, wherever you move — it's not only if you move from Albania to America, it's wherever you move," Haxholli says.