LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Lino Nakwa got a job promotion and became a U.S. citizen in the same week — marking a fresh beginning for the African refugee who charmed a college campus and drew support from congressmen during years of legal wrangling to make a new life in Kentucky.
Nakwa, a native of Sudan, and 267 other immigrants raised their right hands and took the oath of allegiance on Friday as new American citizens during a naturalization ceremony coinciding with Louisville's WorldFest event celebrating the city's diversity.
"Right now I'm filled with mixed feelings — I don't know if I should shout for joy or cry," Nakwa said afterward.
It capped a momentous week for Nakwa, a 2009 graduate of Transylvania University in Lexington.
On Tuesday, Nakwa was promoted to general manager of a KFC restaurant in Louisville.
"This really couldn't happen to a nicer guy," said KFC spokesman Rick Maynard.
Nakwa was abducted at gunpoint nearly 20 years ago by the Sudan People's Liberation Army, beginning his long journey as a refugee.
On Friday, after he joined the host of other new American citizens in taking the oath from U.S. District Judge John G. Heyburn II and reciting the pledge of allegiance, the 32-year-old Nakwa said: "I've finally found somewhere to call a home."
His encounter with the terrorist group created immigration problems that nearly prevented him from gaining American citizenship.
Federal immigration officials initially denied him residency because the terrorist group gave him military training while holding him captive.
Nakwa's training at age 12 amounted to carrying around sticks as if they were guns, said his attorney, Teresa Waggener. Nakwa escaped after a month and wound up in an orphanage in Kenya for years.
Nakwa found himself at risk of being deported after the denial of a green card, but members of Kentucky's congressional delegation took up his cause, urging Homeland Security officials to review the case.
In 2008, the government reopened Nakwa's case. He was granted his green card this past May.
"I join the many people across the commonwealth who were touched by the story of Mr. Lino Nakwa, in congratulating him on becoming a United States citizen," Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said in a statement.
Rep. John Yarmuth, D-Ky., said Nakwa overcame the odds through persistence and hard work.
"I have no doubt he will contribute greatly to our country," he said.
Nakwa's congressional allies also included Rep. Ben Chandler and former Sen. Jim Bunning.
Nakwa arrived in the U.S. in 2003 and raised four younger siblings while working full-time and attending a community college. He later transferred to Transylvania, where he earned a bachelor's degree in business administration. His siblings also went on to college.
Jack Furlong, a philosophy professor at Transy, said the Sudanese native was popular on campus and an "ideal student."
"We are getting a kind of citizen that the Founding Fathers would have wanted," he said. "He knows what it's like not to be free. He knows what an enormous privilege it is just to vote."
He recalled that Nakwa never showed bitterness or anger during his legal ordeal.
"He was just happy, I think, to be alive, to be given this opportunity to learn," Furlong said.
Richard Weber, who was Nakwa's adviser at Transy, called him "a pleasant person to be around."
"He was always very positive, optimistic and not a complainer," he said.
Nakwa said there were times he nearly gave up in his pursuit of citizenship, but said he didn't because of the outpouring of support from the campus, politicians and others.Comment on this story
"I'm thrilled for him," said Waggener, an attorney at Kentucky Refugee Ministries who represented Nakwa. "It's been a long time coming. He's been through a lot. He's really shined here in the United States."
She said he will make "a great citizen and will represent this country well in everything he does."
Having seen food shortages in Africa, Nakwa said he would like to someday pursue a master's degree in agribusiness.
"I could use that knowledge and skills to help people," he said.