By Jennifer Kotila
COKATO, MN When Polina (Sarlai) Kilpela came to the US in 2006 on a student visa from Moldova, she did not expect that six years later she would become a US citizen.
She had simply come to Minnesota that summer to work at a gift shop in Grand Marais and experience what it was like to live in America, she said.
However, she also met someone special that summer Mathew Kilpela of Cokato who changed her course in life and led her to become a naturalized US citizen.
Becoming a citizen was not a decision that came lightly to Polina, because it meant she had to give up her citizenship in Moldova, where she grew up and her family still lives.
However, Polina knows she made the right decision, she said.
“I’ve lived here (Cokato) for four years this is my home,” Polina said. “Even though I love my family dearly, and my whole family is there, this is my home.”
She explained that, since the US is her home, she has to be involved in important decisions, like electing the president, which she cannot do without being a US citizen.
“It was not easy, it was a big decision,” Polina said. “You really have to love someone to make such a big decision.”
The big decision
After the summer of 2006, Mathew and Polina were just friends, and kept in touch when Polina went back to Moldova to attend college.
Although from Moldova, which is located next to Romania and the Ukraine in Eastern Europe, Polina had been attending school in Romania since she was 16.
Throughout the school year, Polina and Mathew kept in touch, and Polina returned to the US in 2007, this time to Colorado.
Mathew went to Colorado to see her. “He was sure I was supposed to be his wife,” Polina said. “I didn’t know I was coming to meet my future husband.”
Mathew was willing to wait to be married until Polina had completed her studies in Romania, Polina said.
While back in Romania and Moldova, her parents encouraged her to think hard about her decision and make sure marrying an American and moving to the US was what Polina wanted.
After all, she would not know anybody at first, and would be giving up her whole life in Moldova.
At Christmas, she would not be able to be with her mom and dad people who love her unconditionally.
“If you come from a bonded family, it’s harder. I was always very close to my family,” Polina said. “It was very hard on my parents.”
Polina also had to consider the cultural changes, with different food, holidays, and family principles and concepts, she said.
For instance, Polina’s family are Orthodox Christians, and Easter is celebrated different days than those celebrated Protestant Christians.
“You’re entering a totally new culture, where you celebrate holidays by yourself,” Polina said.
Another thing Polina thought about was her future children, who would not be able to be close to their grandparents, aunt, or cousins on her side of the family, she said.
Would her children be able to communicate with her mother, who only speaks Romanian?
However, Mathew had won her heart, and even after considering all she would be giving up, she knew she was making the right decision, she said.
While Polina finished school, Mathew applied for a fiancé visa, which took six months to arrive, Polina said.
In 2008, Mathew and Polina celebrated their marriage with her family in Moldova before coming to the US and being married here in October 2008.
Although it was a hard decision, Polina noted her family in the US has been a big help, providing needed assistance in her transition.
“They have made me feel welcome, which makes the adjustment way easier. Trudy (Kilpela, Polina’s mother-in-law) has been on-call whenever I needed her,” Polina said.
Living in the US
After their marriage, Polina, who is an economist, attended St. Cloud State University, and received a master’s degree in business administration.
Through school and the community in Cokato, Polina has made numerous friends, she said. However, she did have to get her driver’s license to make it easier to socialize in such a rural area.
In Moldova, she lived in a larger city, where most people used public transportation. But she likes living in a small town, where neighbors are willing to knock on her door and introduce themselves, Polina said.
She and Mathew had their first child, Kyle Mathew, June 4, 2011 which also happened to be Polina’s birthday.
Shortly after his birth, Polina’s mother came to the US to visit her grandchild. Polina will be going to Moldova soon with Kyle for a two-month visit.
She is busy teaching Kyle two languages, and only speaks to him in Romanian.
“He is already learning which language to use with which people,” Polina said, noting he will speak English to Mathew’s family, and Romanian to her.
Becoming a naturalized citizen
After being married to a US citizen for three years, immigrants are eligible to become a naturalized citizen.
Polina could have applied for a permanent resident card, which is good for 10 years, but she decided becoming a citizen was easier.
She filled out an application, called the N-400, which requires supporting documents proving her marriage is real. For instance, the Kilpelas needed to prove they shared common bank accounts, common insurance, and also included pictures of trips and family gatherings.
After filling out the application, the government requires the biometrics of the citizen seeking naturalization, so fingerprints and a photograph are taken.
Following that, an interview was scheduled, where Polina was asked many of the same questions that are on the N-400 to make sure the answers matched.
Finally, Polina had to pass a US history and civics test, and also an English reading and writing test.
A ceremony took place Aug. 1 at John F. Kennedy High School in Bloomington with Polina and 410 other immigrants becoming naturalized citizens.
Many of the immigrants were from Somalia, but others were from a surprisingly diverse range of countries.
“It was very welcoming, and they made a big deal of it,” Polina said.
She thought she would just be getting a certificate and going home, but there was a large program that went with the ceremony. “It was more than I expected,” she added.
The program included a federal judge who led the new citizens in their oath of citizenship; a message from US President Barack Obama welcoming the new citizens into the US; and a video of the first American immigrants getting off the boats at Ellis Island “looking very poor,” Polina said.
“It was a very emotional ceremony for me,” Polina said. “To be in this country, other than a country which used to be under communist rule and didn’t have free speech or the right to bear arms, it’s a blessing.”
Moldova was part of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), gaining its independence in 1991. It is now a young democracy, Polina said.