Knoxville News Sentinel: Freedom and belonging: 163 newest American citizens naturalized in Blount ceremony

163 newest American citizens naturalized in Blount ceremony

Posted on February 24, 2012

MARYVILLE — Sophat Som and Kelvin Tonks didn't have much in common — until Friday.

Som, 35, who now lives in Chattanooga, fled Cambodia at a young age with her family to escape the murderous regime of despot ruler Pol Pot.

Tonks, 60, who resides in Clinton, is a successful businessman who has lived all over the world.

Som and Tonks, along with 161 others from 61 countries, became forever intertwined Friday when they were sworn in as American citizens.

More than 500 people, including many proud family members, witnessed the patriotic-splashed naturalization proceedings that featured inspiring songs by the Maryville College Concert Choir at the filled-to-capacity Clayton Center for the Arts.

"This is the first time this has ever been held outside of Knox County that we're aware of," said Jason Huffaker, deputy clerk for U.S. District Court in Knoxville.

Huffaker said it was U.S. Magistrate Judge Bruce Guyton's idea to have the event at Clayton Center.

Maryville native and U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., addressing a naturalization proceeding for the first time, was the special guest speaker.

Som, who came to the U.S. with her family in the early 1980s, said that Friday's swearing-in helped bring closure to an often uncertain early life.

"I was so young when I went through all of that trauma," said Som, who said her father had several family members and friends who were murdered by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia.

"I came with my parents as refugees. We went to Thailand, the Philipines we went everywhere."

Som and her family eventually found their way to Minnesota before moving to Morristown. She now lives in Chattanooga with her husband and three children. Som is a supervisor at a manufacturing plant in Rossville, Ga.

"Even though I've lived here all my life, it (becoming a citizen) means freedom and means I'm an American," she said with a smile. "It's exciting. I love it here in America."

Tonks, who owns Senior Citizen Insurance and has the resources to live anywhere, could hardly contain his excitement leading up to Friday's ceremony.

"Today, I finally feel like I belong," said Tonks, whose brother lives in Knoxville.

"Becoming a citizen means permanency it means everything. I want to contribute, vote and do my bit. It's very similar to Britain here, but I feel there's more opportunity."

Tonks, who has also lived in Moscow, France, Australia, Hong Kong and the Middle East — among other places — said East Tennessee takes a backseat to none of those international outposts.

"I have lived all around the world, and it came time to say, 'Where am I gonna settle?' I love East Tennessee. I love the people and I love the South. I found East Tennessee to be the perfect location."

Alexander told the new citizens that the meshing of their diversity is what has made America great.

"The greatest accomplishment of the United States of America is we have molded that diversity into one nation," Alexander said.

"We're grateful that you have chosen to be a citizen."