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Reservist from Kenya attains U.S. citizenship

From Left to Right, Brig. Gen. Mark Johnson, Chief of Staff Air, Minn. Air National Guard, Senior Airman Sammy Muriuki, 934th Airlift Wing Communications Flight, and Senior Airman Amaris Carter, 934th CF salute at the Patriot Day 0-11 ceremony at the Minnesota state capitol. (Air Force Photo/Staff Sgt. Josh Moshier)

Joining other military members, Senior Airman Sammy Muriuki, second from right, 934th Communications Flight, salutes at the Patriot Day 9-11 ceremony at the Minnesota state capitol. (U.S. Air Force Photo/Staff Sgt. Josh Moshier)

Senior Airman Sammy Muriuki shares a moment with his family. (Air Force Photo/Staff Sgt. Josh Moshier)

Senior Airman Sammy Muriuki shares a moment with his family. (Air Force Photo/Staff Sgt. Josh Moshier)

MINNEAPOLIS-ST. PAUL, Minn. -- Some people talk about opportunity; others embrace it. Senior Airman Sammy Muriuki, 934th Communications Flight records custodian, picked the latter by accepting American citizenship in a ceremony in Arden Hills, Minn., Aug. 19.

With his oath of allegiance, he achieved a dream that began when he arrived in the United States in August 2002. By doing so, he traded his native Kenyan citizenship for the possibilities that lie ahead with U.S. citizenship.

"There was definitely a tear on my cheek," Airman Muriuki said. "It was a dream come true, and at that moment, everything finally sunk in. All my sleepless nights were answered. It just opens up so many more doors for me and affords me all of the things I never had before."

Born and raised in Nairobi, Kenya, Airman Muriuki experienced the best and the worst Africa had to offer. He awoke each morning to the enormous African landscape, observed native wildlife unlike any other, and was part of a close-knit village that would always look for reasons to celebrate. He also witnessed the effects of genocide in Rwanda, limited health and medical resources, and mass poverty.

"There are just so many opportunities here that you don't have in Kenya," Airman Muriuki said. "In Kenya, you can do everything you're supposed to do - go to school, study hard, stay out of trouble - but there are no guarantees you will find a job. You end up working for less than $1 a day, or even a week. I tried college there, but it's impossible when you have no money."

An accomplished youth tennis player, Airman Muriuki was hand-picked by the Kenyan government to participate in a goodwill tennis tour of Africa. Seeing the aftermath of civil war, plague and famine in lesser developed countries planted the seeds of wanting something new.

At the same time, Airman Muriuki befriended fellow tennis player Willis Mbandi, who was playing at the Alabama Agricultural and Mechanical University of Huntsville, Ala. Mr. Mbandi told his Alabama A&M coach, Thomas Colvin, about Airman Muriuki. Not long after, Airman Muriuki was on a flight to Normal, Ala., to start his new life.

" Sammy came in with more of an adult personality," Mr. Colvin said. "He was someone who seemed to have more of a purpose (than other incoming freshmen). Sammy took on the responsibility of a family much sooner than my other athletes, but that's always been his way. When he makes a decision, he jumps in with both feet."

What Mr. Colvin was most emphatic about was Airman Muriuki's work ethic.

"I picked Sammy up at the airport after a three-day flight over," he said. "He was up running at 5:30 the next morning. He always had a job, and he was always self-motivated.

"So many people have lost that trait to work hard," said the coach. " Sammy might not always know what he's working toward, but he knows he has to work hard every day to get there."

Airman Muriuki graduated in 2007 with a degree in business administration. Shortly thereafter, he enlisted in the Air Force Reserve. While he was completing basic training and technical school, his wife, Nhia, 6-year-old son, JD, and 3-year-old daughter, Faith, all moved to Minnesota to stay with Nhia's family.

"I had a great recruiter who brought a human element to the whole process," Airman Muriuki said. "He showed me the best options available to me, and explained the good and the bad of each of them. He was honest, helped me understand everything and made a point of bringing my wife into the process. He let her know the resources that would be available to her while I was gone, and that was important to me."

When he joined the 934th CF in June, Airman Muriuki jumped at the chance to gain his U.S. citizenship. Visiting foreign nationals are first required to apply for permanent residency, which went smoothly for Airman Muriuki as his wife was already a U.S. citizen. Next, a formal application for citizenship must be submitted, which can cost as much as $675. However, this fee is often waived for military members. A thorough background check is then accomplished to check for a criminal history, general disposition toward the United States and a good moral character.

The final step before taking the oath of allegiance requires applicants to display proficiency in English and to pass an American history and civics test. This step was the most challenging, and rewarding, experience in the process for Airman Muriuki.

"In Kenya, we use English that was taught to us by the British," he said. "So spelling was sometimes a problem for me."

One of the examples he gave was the difference in spelling the word "color," which is spelled "colour" in England.

"At Alabama A&M, I got a paper back from my instructor with red marks all over it," Airman Muriuki said. "She told me, 'Sammy, this is a good paper, but you spelled way too many words wrong.' I told her I spelled them right. But it was just something I had to re-learn to help assimilate myself to this country."

He also said educating himself on American history helped him appreciate even more what it means to be American.

"Learning more about the sacrifices people made to make this country what it is, to give us the freedoms and the rights we enjoy, makes you want to fight for it," he said.

In large part because of where he was raised, Airman Muriuki appreciates those freedoms and rights more than most. It's also what drove him to the Air Force Reserve in the first place.

"I have a voice in this country," he said. "I can speak my concerns without fearing repercussions from my government. I wanted to be able to make a difference in this world, and I have a better chance to do that as an American citizen than anywhere else in the world.

"That's why I've invested myself in this country and always give my best. I want to help protect those freedoms."

Airman Muriuki has made the most of every opportunity afforded to him: his tennis skills led to his college education and introduction to the U.S., while in Alabama he met his wife and started his family, the Air Force offered a steady career, and the entire experience gave him a chance for U.S. citizenship.

And he's not stopping there. On Oct. 31, he will take the Air Force Officer Qualifying Test in hopes of advancing further in his Air Force Reserve career.

"I believe no matter what you do, you should strive to be the best you can be, or make the best out of your situation," he said. "If I remain enlisted, I will want to be a chief. If I become an officer, I will want to be a general."

His Air Force Reserve supervisor, Senior Master Sgt. Patty Sahr, 934th CF knowledge operations functional manager, has no doubt he will succeed in anything he puts his mind to.

"Sammy is an absolute Godsend," she said. "His enthusiasm is what separates him from almost everyone else. Even the most mundane things, he'll jump right in. He has a real appreciation for all the things many of us take for granted, and he's just happy to have this opportunity in front of him. There are not too many others like him."

It seems fitting, Airman Muriuki said, that at the conclusion of the citizenship ceremony, Lee Greenwood's God Bless the U.S.A. played in the background.

"I believe that song resonated with every one of us," he said. "I'm just proud to be an American."  (Air Force Reserve Command News Service)