Dream of citizenship comes true

Vladimir and Katya German celebrated their first Fourth of July as Americans after being sworn in as citizens last month.

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Katya and Vlad German listen as daughter Oksana Bennion presents them with a cruise for their recent citzenship and their 20th anniversary of immigrating to the United States.

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Oksana Bennion presents the gift of an ocean cruise to her parents, who rarely do anything for themselves, she said. The cruise is set for October, 20 years after the German family came to Walla Walla from Kazakhstan in hopes of building a life of free of violence and hate.

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Katya German hugs a family friend on the Fourth of July, the first holiday as new Americans for herself and husband Vladimir.

WALLA WALLA - The setting could not have been any more traditional at one Fourth of July celebration in Walla Walla.

While red, white and blue bunting waved in a gentle breeze, more than a dozen guests topped off a barbecue lunch of burgers, salads and chips with desserts brimming in Americana - hot apple pie, homemade vanilla ice cream and a table full of berry cobblers.

Kids swam and ran, adults chatted and a dog barked now and again.

In the Wilbur Street yard of the Tupper family, Vladimir German sat crisscross on the shady grass, a smile steady on his lips. Seated at the feet of his wife Katya, Vladimir ate pasta salad and played with his granddaughter, Sophie. At 16 months old, the little girl was clearly enjoying the holiday and her grandparents, who frequently snapped the toddler's picture.

Sophie's memory will not retain the impact of this particular Fourth of July, but her grandparents can never forget - it was their first as American citizens.

On June 5, Vladimir and Katya German were awarded citizenship in the country they fought to stay part of, nearly 20 years after landing on American soil.

The journey begins

The German family arrived in Washington state in October of 1992, on a mission to reunite Vladimir's grandfather, Robert, with his sister, Emma, who had grown up on the other side of the world from her brother.

Robert, left behind in Poland by his mother when she fled domestic violence by booking passage to America, wanted only to see his sister and die in a free country. Vladimir, in what was considered a miraculous act, was able to get travel visas for Robert and his own family, including Katya, son Pavel and daughter Oksana.

The family had been in Kazakhstan since 1941, when the ethic German community - once welcomed by Russia's government - was packed into cattle railway cars and deposited in the severely harsh environment of the Kazakh Steppe during Joseph Stalin's rule.

The German people were barely tolerated or outright loathed by those who were in Kazakhstan before them.

Robert's family survived, but barely, an existence of near starvation, widespread hate crimes by native Kazakhs, restricted movement and no chance to improve their lives. Higher education was denied and military conscription guaranteed for the men.

Once in America, Vladimir and Katya decided this was the chance to escape the hostility and violence they had suffered. The couple, with the help of cousins Dave and LeAnn Tupper of Walla Walla, looked for every legal avenue to live in the United States.

As they waited for that to happen, the family worked any jobs they could, obeyed every law and raised their children as Americans. Katya and Vladimir sought and paid for legal immigration help, filing for political asylum at the first opportunity in 1994.

Yet in 2005 the Germans faced deportation. A so-called immigration specialist, who had taken the money made by Vladimir and Katya's labor, turned out to be a fraud and did nothing on the case. A common theme, experts told Dave Tupper.

The Germans kept working, paying about $1,000 annually for government permits to do so. Vladimir found work as a mechanic for Mountain Oil in Walla Walla while Katya built a thriving cleaning business.

In 1994, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security finally got around to looking at the family's application for asylum. No one could say why it took 10 years, a decade of living on borrowed hope for the German family.

Government officials declared the Germans would no longer face personal threat in Kazakhstan and said they must go back. Back to harassment for their Christian faith and their American ways, where Pavel faced probable death in military service, Vladimir said in a Feb. 20, 2005, story in the Union-Bulletin.

In a rare turn of events, a federal judge overturned that asylum denial in May of 2005. In Seattle, Immigration Judge Kenneth Josephson listened to hours of testimony before bringing his gravel down in the packed courtroom.

"Asylum is granted," he announced.

The Germans were slow to absorb the news that day, Vladimir wondering out loud in the attorney's office if the verdict could possibly be real - "What happened today ... it's 100 percent?"

Josephson's ruling ended years of uncertainty and fear for the German family and brought tears to nearly every eye in the courtroom. In Walla Walla, the community let out a collective breath.

Citizenship granted

Vladimir and Katya were eligible to apply for citizenship six years after gaining asylum and began the process last year, including criminal background checks and fingerprinting. Again.

In a citizenship ceremony in Spokane last month, the couple at long last formally pledged allegiance to a country they gave their hearts to almost two decades ago.

On Wednesday, with the sound of distant firecrackers, it seemed to be sinking in.

"We had been waiting for that day for a long time," Katya said.

And yet the attention their situation has garnered, this day and before, was overwhelming, she added.

But the moment wasn't over yet.

With the small crowd gathered around, Vladimir and Katya's daughter, Oksana Bennion, made a surprise presentation to her parents as they sat before her on the lawn.

"Today is July 4th. We are here to celebrate this country and our freedom," she read from a prepared speech. "Not only are we here to celebrate the freedom of this country, but we are all here to celebrate your personal freedom and citizenship."

Bennion went on to praise her mom and dad for overcoming tremendous challenges in moving to a new country and fighting to give their children endless opportunities. "Because of your sacrifice ... I can raise my baby girl in a country where she is free and protected. For that, I am eternally grateful."

As people wiped at their eyes, Bennion told her parents she had gathered money from family supporters to finance a week-long ocean cruise "to celebrate your freedom. The cruise leaves in October, the 20th anniversary of coming to America."

Katya sat open-mouthed as those assembled laughed and applauded with gusto. Echoing the sentiment of six years ago, Vladimir felt a need for a reality check, despite holding a handful of pictures of cruise ships handed over by his daughter. "This is for real, Oksana?"

It is his and Katya's hope they never disappoint those who have believed in them, Vladimir added. "We're looking forward to living a normal life just like everybody. It's a happy feeling to be finally home."

His wife nodded. "Now we finally have a country."

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For more information on the cruise for Katya and Vladimir German, go to www.everribbon.com/ribbon/view/6172

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