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105-year-old realizes dream of citizenship

Iranian-born Sona Babai was among 7,000 others who became U.S. citizens at ceremonies in Pomona. She joined family here six years ago.

October 26, 2006|Teresa Watanabe | Times Staff Writer

Sona Babai counts good health, a loving mother-in-law and 10 children as the biggest blessings of a long and fruitful life.

But there was one more thing she wanted: American citizenship.

So the native of Iran placed her hand over her heart, pledged allegiance to the flag and Wednesday became one of the nation's newest citizens to be sworn in.

At 105 years old, she is also one of the oldest.

Before a stage festooned with American flags, Babai joined 7,000 others from 132 countries who became American citizens at naturalization ceremonies Wednesday at the Pomona Fairplex. But the petite woman with clear brown eyes and snowy white hair cut a distinctive figure as several news cameras recorded her slow walk to the front of the cavernous hall, stooped but steady, unassisted except for a cane.

When a ceremony official announced, "Excuse me, we have a lady that's 105 years old -- and she's walking!" the crowd erupted in claps and cheers.

Babai said she wanted to naturalize as a sign of gratitude to America for embracing her children, four of whom live here, and allowing their families to thrive as restaurateurs, business consultants, architects, engineers, dentists and other professionals.

"America is a big umbrella that lets a lot of people underneath to be safe," Babai said in her native Azari language, which was translated by her son, Antoine Babai. "Because of the good hearts of American people, I want to be part of them."

Marie Sebrechts, spokeswoman for the U.S. Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services, said research indicated that Babai was the fourth oldest person ever to naturalize. The oldest, she said, was a 117-year-old Armenian immigrant who became a citizen in Los Angeles district ceremonies in 1997.

Antoine Babai said his mother still threads needles, has 20/20 vision and needs no hearing aid. Her mind is still so sharp she can tell her daughter in Tehran in exactly which cabinet in which room to find a particular household item, he added.

Both nature and good nurturing account for her longevity, the family said. Her eldest brother lived to age 117, and her younger siblings range in age from 95 to 101.

Growing up in the unpolluted environment of a rural farming village in northwest Iran also helped, Antoine Babai said. In her native Gharahbagh, a 400-person village of vineyards and almond trees, Babai's family grew their own food, slaughtered their own livestock for meat, churned their own butter and heated their ovens with patties of animal dung.

"There were no preservatives, no chemicals, nothing," Antoine Babai said. "I believe one reason she's lived this long is that the foundation of her life was natural."

Babai herself says as much when asked the secret of her longevity. "Clean air, fresh food and good family," she said.

But Babai also endured hardships. She lived through three major political upheavals in Iran, including the Islamic Revolution that she criticizes for using religion to justify such acts as seizing private property. Many of her relatives were killed in the eight-year Iran-Iraq War, she said.

As a child, she used to hide in water wells to escape murderous tribes who would ravage her village.

She was even kidnapped at age 12 as a bride for a distant relative smitten by her beauty, according to her son. But the adventure had a happy ending. She produced 10 children over an 84-year marriage and grew to love her mother-in-law so much that she still kisses her picture every night at bedtime.

Her link to America began as it has for so many immigrants: through a desire to give her children a first-class education and unlimited opportunities.

Neither Babai nor her husband Mokhtar, who died in 1991 at age 103, ever learned to read or write. But they knew the value of an American education, so Antoine and another son came to the U.S. to study advertising design and engineering, respectively, at Louisiana State University.

The two brothers eventually settled in Palm Desert and opened a French restaurant. Two sisters followed and settled in Irvine. Today, Babai boasts six children, 13 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

The children obtained a green card for their mother and brought her to Palm Desert six years ago, after their father died in Tehran.

Her request to become a citizen surprised Karan Kler, executive director of Coachella Valley Immigration Service and Assistance Inc.

But he said Babai told him: "By becoming a citizen, I can show to the world that it is never too late to give back."

Because of his client's medical conditions, Kler managed to obtain waivers excusing her from the English and civic tests required of most prospective citizens. But Babai sailed through her interview with immigration officials -- telling them, among other things, that she would bear arms to defend the United States.

War was not on her mind Wednesday. Asked what she would do as a new citizen, Babai replied:

"I'm an American. I'm going to vote."

teresa.watanabe@latimes.com

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