From left, Muhannad Alwan, Mais Alwan, Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer and Shahad Alwan, pose after a citizenship oath ceremony in Louisville in late May. On that day, after years of learning the language, filling out paperwork and taking exams, the three Alwans became U.S. citizens. (Submitted photo)
From left, Muhannad Alwan, Mais Alwan, Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer and Shahad Alwan, pose after a citizenship oath ceremony in Louisville in late May. On that day, after years of learning the language, filling out paperwork and taking exams, the three Alwans became U.S. citizens. (Submitted photo)
This past Fourth of July was a bit different for Mais Alwan and her family.

It was the first time three family members celebrated the holiday as U.S. citizens - after undergoing years of navigating and fulfilling a wide array of government guidelines.

At the end of May, Mais - who will be a junior at Hanover College this fall - her father and older sister took the official oath to become American citizens while standing in front of Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer and about 150 other new citizens.

She and her sister wore red, white and blue sashes to celebrate the achievement.

The naturalization ceremony served as the final path to citizenship for the Iraqi family, which came to the U.S. in 2008 after fleeing a hostile situation in Baghdad four years earlier.

Mais' struggles were not unlike other fellow new citizens she stood with during the ceremony.

She had to learn a new language, uproot her entire life to come to America and enter a culture that in no way resembled her own.

"It was very emotional and exciting," Mais said.

She admits being "a bit nervous" reciting the oath at the ceremony and enduring the required tests, which include questions about current politicians and American history.

But she said she was also glad to have her family by her side, especially her older sister, Shadad. The pair assisted each other in their studies every step of the way.

"I was so glad my sister was there (to study with)," she said.

Mais, now 20, aspires to be a doctor like her mother, who is serving a residency in Virgina.

The family, originally from Baghdad, sought refuge from the war in Iraq in 2004 after Mais and her siblings received kidnapping threats from a militant group known to target wealthy Iraqi families and demand a ransom. There, her mother was a doctor and father owned his own business.

Such threats are sometimes deadly, as was the case for Mais' cousin, who was kidnapped and then killed.

"We had to leave pretty much overnight," she said.

Mais, her father and two siblings all fled west to Jordan. Her mother stayed behind for one month becuase of work committments. Together, they stayed in Jordan for about four years, but elected to move to America because job opportunities were slim to none for her parents.

When they came to America, it was through a friend of a friend.

In other words, they knew nobody.

And for the second time in five years, Mais and her family had to leave behind their lives and say goodbye to each of their classmates and friends.

"I would't wish that on anyone," she said. "No one."

The first year in America, each of the Alwan children - Mais also has a younger brother - had to focus entirely on English because none had formal training.

And if the language barrier wasn't bad enough, one can imagine the cultural differences between the Middle East and American Midwest.

For one, the family's religion - Islam - carries strict guidelines for slaughtering and consuming animals; guidelines that are not commonly followed in America.

"We had a hard time finding things to eat," she said.

With the help of her sister, Mais said she pushed through the language courses and excelled later in high school, earning a full scholarship to Hanover College. In addition, her sister and father are both enrolled at Spaulding University in Louisville, while her mother is beginning her residency in Virginia.

While Mais has her citizenship status wrapped up, she plans to continue focusing on her studies, with the goal of one day earning the title of "doctor."

"Since I was little, I wanted to be a doctor, and I want to continue to follow that dream," she said.