07/14/2003 at 01:00 AM EDT
Last Independence Day Vadim Shebeco joined his fiancée Melinda Sweezey, and her son Matthew, 7, for a picnic at a local park. This year, for the first time, he'll enjoy the fireworks as an American. It's my holiday now," says the Wilmington. Del., figure-skating coach, who'll take the citizenship oath July 1. "My life is perfect. How could it get better?"
In his native Moscow, Shebeco, 31, fantasized about America as a land of "bubble gum and blue jeans." An ice-skater from age 5, he was selected as a likely Olympian by Soviet officials, who paid for his training—but controlled almost every aspect of his life. "It wasn't much of a childhood," he says, "it was like a job." In 1991 he made the national team. But by then the USSR was falling apart—leaving his parents jobless and dependent on their only child for support. "I had to get out of Russia," he says, "[I thought] if I could get a job in an ice show I could send money back."
Shebeco managed to find a job with an ice show in Mexico, but when he won a sought-after tryout with the Ice Capades in Toronto, his Mexican bosses threatened to send him back to Russia if he tried to leave. He fled in disguise, arriving at the rink where the troupe was rehearsing in Canada with $1,500 in savings and the clothes on his back. "His skates were eight years old," says former Ice Capades owner Dorothy Hamill. "But he blew us away with magnificent double axels and triple salchows." For six years Shebeco toured America, often playing Prince Charming to Hamill's Cinderella, mastering English before settling down to coach kids in Denver. In 2001 he met fellow skating teacher Sweezey, now 32, and moved to her hometown in Delaware. "He's all about the U.S.A.," she says of Shebeco, who scored 100 percent on his citizenship exam. "It's a very big deal for him." When the letter finally arrived saying he would soon be sworn in, Shebeco says, "it felt like I won a million bucks."
Wounded by shrapnel in Iraq, Marine Lance Cpl. O.J. Santamaria was lying in a hospital bed when a visiting VIP asked him his one wish. "If I can't go back to my platoon," he replied, "I want to be a U.S. citizen." Two days later he got more than he'd wished for when President and Mrs. Bush stopped by a Naval hospital in Bethesda, Md., to witness him taking the oath. "Where's your family?" Bush asked Santamaria, 21. When he told him in the Philippines, the President said, "I'll be your family," and stood by his side. Raised in Manila, Santamaria had admired his grandfather Manuel, who fought in WWII. Fifteen months after arriving in Daly City, Calif., in 2000, when he joined his dad, Robert, 49, and stepmom, Marydel, 39, Santamaria was in uniform. "They called me a U.S. Marine, but I wasn't a citizen," he says. "Now when I see an American flag, I say, 'Those are my colors.' "
THE KARIC FAMILY
Vanisa Karic was one of the lucky ones. At 12, she fled her town of Brcko, Bosnia, with her family under gunfire from Serbian soldiers. For the rest of the bitter ethnic war that raged from 1992 to 1995 in the former Yugoslavia, the family took shelter in a nearby town, dodging bombs and artillery. "Every day was the same," she recalls. "Clean the house. If you hear the air-raid siren, go to the concrete basement."
Life couldn't be more different in suburban Stone Mountain, Ga., where Vanisa, 23, and her husband, Muhamed, 29, now live with their children Sanel, 8, and 10-month-old Alisa. During the war Muhamed's family sold land to pay for the couple, who had met as teenagers, to travel to Croatia, where they gained refugee status for entry to the U.S., immigrating in 1996. Though neither spoke English, Vanisa took courses and learned from watching children's shows like Barney with Sanel. Now she works as a manager helping other immigrants at Refugee Family Services in Clarkston, Ga., and Muhamed works as a sign installer.
But it hasn't been easy. Muhamed has taken two vacations in six years, working overtime to send money home. And he still has nightmares, he says, "about friends who lost body parts and are dead." Still, both are ever thankful to have escaped that fate and built a better life. "I think every single day," says Vanisa, "how lucky we are."
For Abbas Al-Atbi, April 10 was a day of dual celebrations. An Iraqi Shiite Muslim who fled Saddam Hussein's regime in 1991, Al-Atbi awoke to the news that American troops had taken Baghdad the day before. It was also the day he was sworn in as an American citizen. "My first country got freedom, and I got my freedom in the same week," he says. "It was wonderful."
The middle of seven children, Al-Atbi grew up in Basra, worked in his uncle's jewelry business, and by 13 was running the store. Yet Hussein's suppression of the Shiites made life impossible. "You had no life. You owned nothing. You got killed for nothing," he says of living under the regime. So when Al-Atbi was 19, he left for Saudi Arabia, where he spent four years in a refugee camp before immigrating to the United States. For four years he worked in a St. Louis factory and saved money to buy his own store.
Now the owner of a minimart, Al-Atbi, 32, still works seven days a week, but earns enough to indulge his passions for hip-hop music, fast American cars and spoiling the two women in his life: girlfriend Sherri Jones, 31, and their daughter Samah, 4. On July 4 he will take a rare day off and celebrate freedom with his family at a cabin in the country, where they will barbecue and watch the fireworks. "Just like an American," he says.
Gwendolyn Anctil still remembers one of the last talks she had with her father, Pablo, a cook. "I am poor, and I don't have an inheritance to give you," he said as he looked over her sixth grade report card. "The only thing I can give you is an education. You have to do well."
She would have made him proud. Now a college and high school teacher in Paramount, Calif., Anctil, 34, will take the oath of citizenship July 3, her last step in a nearly two-decade trek that started with that conversation in Guatemala. By the early '80s Anctil's parents had left to work in the U.S., leaving her with an aunt. When Pablo died, Anctil, her brother and sister snuck into the country to join their mother. She entered 10th grade knowing no English; two years later she graduated near the top of her class and went on to earn a bachelors degree from California State, Dominguez Hills. But a California court ruling drastically raising tuition for illegal immigrants kept Anctil from going on to grad school for another five years. She won a green card--and a husband, Paul, a middle school teacher. "I know there are people who feel their taxes are going to these illegal kids," she says. "And they might be right about some. But I never got welfare. I worked to go to school." Now she only wishes her father could see how far his words have taken her. "I'm living proof," she says, "that if you set your mind to something, the opportunity is here."
Writers: Daniel S. Levy and J.D. Heyman
Reporters: Macon Morehouse, Michaele Ballard, Kimberly Brown, Kate Klise and Champ Clark