MARTINEZ -- Ashur Esho's family fled to the United States from Iraq, by way of Syria, but they lost their home, their father's businesses, and so many of their worldly possessions.

His father had owned two successful businesses, a printing press and a packaging company. And they were living in a nine-bedroom house, which was "like a museum" with more than 200 original paintings, father Siham Esho recalled. It had a garage that fit 10 cars, which fueled Ashur's love of automobiles as a youth which he carries to this day.

But in 2006, when the country's first government led by Nouri al-Maliki took office, everything changed for his family.

"I lived in a war zone ... it was not safe anymore to be there," Ashur Esho explained. "We had to leave everything and come here, but it's fine. We'll start again."

Ashur Esho, 22, was among 21 East Bay residents to take their oaths of allegiance to become the area's newest United States citizens on a sunny Sunday morning during a special naturalization ceremony held in honor of Earth Week at the John Muir National Historic Site in Martinez.

The Concord resident officially became an American citizen along with those from 14 other nations, including Algeria, Mexico, the Philippines, Egypt, El Salvador, Iran, Pakistan and Colombia. They sat there, many with tiny American flags in their pockets, in a sunny patch of grass shaded by a circle of trees -- a pecan, a redwood and a buckeye tree -- in view of celebrated naturalist John Muir's former home.


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Each year, the United States welcomes about 680,000 citizens during naturalization ceremonies.

Also in the front row was Sumit Sen, 52, a Walnut Creek resident from India. He said it had been a long journey for him, since he had been in the United States for 26 years before becoming a citizen.

The pediatrician who did his medical training at the University of Chicago and UCLA, ¿helps to provide cutting-edge treatment for kids with autism and premature babies with developmental difficulties at Good Samaritan Hospital in San Jose and School of Imagination in Dublin.

He said that one of his main goals as a citizen will be to gain more attention for the important work he and his medical team are doing to treat autism, as well as get more involved in civic life with his two sons and his wife, Maria Duran from the Philippines, who was also naturalized.

He said that he had applied to become a citizen in 1999, ¿but after the Sept. 11, 2001, tragedy, the process took 10 years longer.

"It just made me more determined, just like every American," to reach his goal of becoming a citizen, he said. "I took 9/11 very personally."

Robert Hanna, the great-great-grandson of Muir, delivered a brief address to the citizens as the ceremony's keynote speaker.

"Congratulations! This moment is so incredible and inspiring that I will remember it for the rest of my life ... it's just an absolute honor to be here today and share this with your families," he said.

Noting that Muir was himself an immigrant whose father also came to United States from Dunbar, Scotland, in search of a better life for his family, Hanna talked about the promise that starting this new chapter in their lives in America would bring the new citizens.

It gave Muir and his descendants "the opportunity to work day-in and day-out to provide a better life for their families," he said."As I look out today, that same incredible opportunity to follow our dreams exists in every single one of us."

The audience of immigrants and their families, many with cameras, cell phones and video cameras to document the occasion, came to cheer on their loved ones and wave their own pocket-size American flags.

A Diablo Valley College student, majoring in business management, Ashur Esho admitted that when he first came to the United States about five years ago with his family, it was difficult. He was just 17 years old and started as a student at Northgate High School in Walnut Creek.

But now, 'we like it and we really can't think about being in any other place," said Esho, wants to establish his own business. "America is a great place to do that."

He says he and his family, including his father and his mother, Muna Ayoob, will be also getting naturalized on Wednesday in Oakland.

"Being in America opened our eyes to a lot of things," Esho said. "When we were living in Iraq, we didn't know what it was like here. We used to look at it in the pictures and the movies, but actually being here is a lot nicer. It's a lot more meaningful here."

"And it was -- to be honest with you -- one of my dreams to be in America, when I was Iraq," he added. "And now, it's come true."

Contact Joyce Tsai at 925-847-2123. Follow her at Twitter.com/JoyceTsaiNews.