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Santa Fe synagogue hosts citizenship ceremony for preschool teacher

December 14, 2018

The sanctuary at Temple Beth Shalom reverberated with singer Lee Greenwood’s voice Thursday, calming the shrieks and cries of the two-dozen toddlers crowding its pews alongside teary-eyed parents.

I’m proud to be an American

Where at least I know I’m free.

In the front right pew, closest to the screen displaying the lyrics to “God Bless the USA,” Walema Kwanza Ntele enjoyed his first moments as an American citizen. His wife, Mia Anderson, wrapped her arm around him as the music built and tears trickled down his cheeks. In line with the lyrics, everyone stood together — kids waving miniature American flags, parents clapping and Kwanza Ntele beaming.

“I feel amazing,” he said.

Kwanza Ntele, known as “Mr. Walema” to his class of 3-year-olds at Temple Beth Shalom Preschool, celebrated his citizenship ceremony with the preschool staff and families, a group he said has enabled him to live his American dream.

“I feel lucky to teach here and be respected as a human being and for what I do,” he said. “This country has done so much to help me fulfill my dream and practice my passion.”

The 35-year-old was born in the Democratic Republic of Congo and graduated in information technology management from the Institute of Commerce of Gombe in the country’s capital, Kinshasa. He moved to South Africa for work, and after taking care of kids, ended up changing his path to early childhood education.

He helped found Beyond Daisies Montessori Educare Centre in Cape Town, and said it went from six students to 80 within the five years he was there.

Anderson, a teacher in Santa Fe Public Schools, met Kwanza Ntele in 2012 while she was teaching at the American International School of Cape Town. The Chicago native married Kwanza Ntele in 2014 and the couple moved to Santa Fe in the summer of 2015 to be near Anderson’s retired parents.

Within three months, Kwanza Ntele started his job at Temple Beth Shalom Preschool.

“It’s been a long journey,” he said.

The ceremony started as U.S. Customs and Immigration Services Officer Jacqueline Puccetti explained the requirements Kwanza Ntele had fulfilled: a sufficient grasp of the English language, American history and government. She detailed the responsibilities he would undertake and rights as a citizen. Then, she invited him forward.

“Upon taking the oath of allegiance, you will become the newest citizen of the United States,” Puccetti said.

Cheers and applause accompanied the end of his vows and the declaration he was now an American — one of about 2,400 Puccetti said her Albuquerque-based agency has sworn as citizens for the 2018 fiscal year.

Anderson said she was overwhelmed by emotions, but she mostly felt reassurance.

“It’s a relief just to feel safe and secure,” she said. “It makes everything easier.”

The couple planned to apply for his U.S. passport Thursday afternoon; they had already talked about trips and family visits overseas. Anderson said the past years have been tense with uncertainty as U.S. immigration policies shifted. But now, she sighed, saying they didn’t need to worry anymore.

“It makes me feel proud to be an American,” she said.

Rabbi Neil Amswych said the synagogue had never before hosted a citizenship ceremony. He described Kwanza Ntele as the kind of person every country should want to have.

“He is full of hope and promise,” Amswych said. “It reminds us of a core teaching of Judaism that we’re all family.”

As Puccetti continued the ceremony, Kwanza Ntele took time to hug, shake hands or pat heads of every adult and child who showed up for him.

Nicholas Salinas attended with his 3-year-old, Xavier. Salinas said they wanted to be there for the man who always gives so much.

“Of course we had to come support him seeing how much he does for my son,” he said. “To give him as much love as he deserves.”

As Xavier waved his American flag and walked out of the sanctuary in the snow, Salinas acknowledged the toddler probably didn’t understand the ceremony and may have thought it was Mr. Walema’s birthday.

“But in a way,” he said, “it kind of is, right?”

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