Central Park naturalization ceremony marks World Refugee Day

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NEW YORK (AP) -- As part of a special naturalization ceremony in honor of World Refugee Day, 19 new Americans were sworn in as citizens on Monday in New York's Central Park. The group of mostly asylum seekers and refugees represented 12 different countries.

The evening ceremony was held at the Delacorte Theater, an amphitheater best known as a venue for free Shakespeare performances. Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson led the citizenship candidates in the Oath of Allegiance.

"You remind us of how special it is to be an American citizen because you work so hard to join our ranks," Johnson told them.

Families and loved ones filled the audience, looking on as each of the future citizens raised their right hands and swore loyalty to the United States.

Hatoumata Tounkara, a refugee from the West African country of Mali, was naturalized at the ceremony.

"Today is the happiest day of my life," she said. "This country has given me everything."

People who come to the U.S. as refugees or asylum seekers are eligible to apply for green cards after a year and citizenship after five years in the country. Last year nearly 730,000 people were naturalized, according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

David Miliband, the CEO of the International Rescue Committee, a non-profit organization that supports refugees, also delivered remarks during the ceremony.

"New York, the ultimate refugee and immigrant city, wants to stand up and be proud of its heritage and its future as a place that welcomes people from all corners of the earth," he said.