Refugees find freedom and responsibility in U.S. citizenship

Ali al-Rishawi, shown here with his wife, Zina, and two of their four daughters, plans to vote in his first U.S. election this fall.

Story and photos by Ben Kreimer, Special to NewsNetNebraska

Rakad al-Lateef rises to face the American flag mounted in front of the white board.  She glides her hand to her heart and recites the Pledge of Allegiance, holding the flag in her gaze as though it were listening and analyzing her speech, able to determine her loyalty to the country she wants to call her own.

“I try and stress that it’s not easy living in a democracy,” said Beverly Clark, the teacher for Lincoln Literacy’s citizenship preparation class.  “You have to become educated and you have to pay attention.  That’s part of the responsibility of citizenship.”

Al-Lateef, 37, is a student of Clark’s.  The free citizenship preparation class is held from 10:30 a.m. to noon Saturdays at St. Paul United Methodist Church at 11th and M streets.

The class helps immigrants and refugees like al-Lateef, a former Iraqi refugee, pass the U.S. naturalization test so they can become American citizens.  The test includes an interview portion, where applicants answer questions about their background and citizenship application to show English verbal skills, and a reading and writing portion that includes questions about American government and history to show basic English literacy skills.

Because many of Clark’s students are in the process of learning English, her lessons blend English language learner instruction with American government and history lessons.

Working out of the civics lessons booklet provided by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, Clark, 62, provides her students with an introduction to American history, geography, and politics.  This includes the name of the country’s first president, George Washington; the names of America’s longest rivers, the Mississippi and Missouri; the symbolism behind the 13 stripes and 50 stars on the flag which represent the 13 colonies and 50 states, and the significance of the Second Amendment, the right to bear arms.

“I have bare arms, you have covered arms,” Clark said, gliding her hands over the exposed skin of arms.  “It has nothing to do with arms. It has to do with guns,” she said, making a pattering sound and imitating a pistol with her hand.

In class, Clark emphasizes the freedoms guaranteed Americans by the government.  Many of these freedoms, particularly speech and religion, are new concepts for refugees, including al-Lateef.

When al-Lateef, a Shiite Muslim, was living in Iraq, she could not go to the mosque and pray, she said.  Under former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein, a Sunni Muslim, Shiites were repressed, despite representing a majority of Iraq’s population.

“Sometimes you [a Shiite Muslim] could be killed if you go to the mosque,” she said, making a gun with her hands.

Al-Lateef is following in the footsteps of other refugees, like Ali al-Rishawi, also from Iraq, who have already passed their U.S. citizenship test and will be voting for the first time in this fall’s primary election.

Al-Rishawi, an American citizen since 2008 and a U.S. resident since 1997, will be going to the polls for the first time in the upcoming election.  Al-Rishawi, 42, said he will vote Democrat instead of Republican because he believes Democrats will focus more on creating jobs and improving America’s education system while opposing war.

Al-Rishawi’s wife, Zina, 31, explained that when it comes to politics, a Muslim must be careful not to vote for someone who will create war because it goes against their religion.

Al-Rishawi left Iraq in 1991 during Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait because he refused to fight in the army.  Men who refused to fight, his wife said, could be imprisoned.

Islam is by its nature a peaceful religion.  The prophet Muhammad, the person Muslims believe to be the link between humans and God, said in his Farewell Sermon on March 9, 632 A.D.: “Hurt no one so that no one may hurt you.”

The root of the word Islam is shared with the Arabic word for peace: salaam.  A common greeting used by Muslims is assalamu alaijum, meaning peace be upon you.

“We think if I gave my name to someone [in a vote] who will make war with other countries and innocent people, then God will punish me,” Zina al-Rishawi said.

Despite her established political beliefs, she said she will not be voting this year because she has “a lot of things to do.”   But that doesn’t mean she is indifferent to the candidates running for president.

“If [Mitt Romney] wins, good luck America,” she said, her voice dripping with sarcasm. “Not only America: the world.”

Her reason for not voting is shared by other Americans.  The U.S. Census report analyzing voter turnout during the November 2008 primary election indicated that 64 percent of voting-age citizens voted.  The study said that 71 percent of voting-age citizens were registered to vote, and that 90 percent of these registered individuals voted.  But, the report also said that of the registered non-voters, 18 percent did not vote because they were “too busy or had conflicting work or school schedules.”

Aras Shakir, a former Kurdish Iraqi refugee, believes that in America a person’s vote counts. “Cherish that,” he says.

Aras Shakir, a 20-year-old University of Nebraska-Lincoln secondary education major, is not too busy to vote.  He will be voting for the first time in the upcoming election.

“Your vote counts,” said Shakir, a former Kurdish Iraqi refugee.  “Cherish that.”

Until Saddam Hussein was removed from power, elections in Iraq were for show.  In 2002, Hussein held an election to show the world that Iraqis wanted him in office as their president.  He received 100 percent of the vote.  His was the only name on the ballot.

Shakir said that elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa, in countries like Syria and Libya, people are “sick and tired of their votes not counting.“

“They don’t have freedom like we do [in America],” he said.

Unlike al-Lateef and al-Rishawi, Shakir never took the citizenship test.

In 2006, his mother, Hamdiya Hkaram, was dying from esophageal cancer.  Before she died, she became an American citizen.

“Before she passed away, she made this single wish: to become a U.S. citizen,” Shakir said.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services states that children under the age of 18 become American citizens when their parents become citizens.  Because Shakir was under 18 when his parents became citizens, he automatically became a citizen.

Shakir said he and his family were thankful for America’s efforts at removing Hussein’s regime from power.  Before Shakir was born, his father was imprisoned for seven years in Abu Ghraib prison for refusing to fight in the Iran-Iraq war.  After his release, Shakir’s family fled Iraq during Hussein’s al-Anfal Campaign, a genocidal initiative coinciding with the war in which chemical weapons such as mustard gas were used on the country’s Kurdish population.

Shakir said that Hussein felt threatened by the Kurds, believing they were allied with Iran. More than 180,000 Kurdish people were killed during the attacks or as a result of them, including Shakir’s older brother, who died at the age of 2 from health problems caused by exposure to the chemical weapons.

Shakir’s family spent time as refugees in Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, where Shakir was born. He immigrated to America with his family in 1998 when he was 6 years old.

America provided Shakir’s family with a sense of national identity and home that was previously non-existent.  When they were in Iraq, they were not Iraqi; they were Kurdish.  In Afghanistan and Iran they were not considered Afghanis or Iranians; they were Iraqis.  In Pakistan they were not considered Iraqis; they were Kurdish.

“When we first came to the United States it was actually a place where we could call home,” he said.  “It’s my home. I’m an American citizen.”

Like the al-Rishawis, Shakir is a Democrat, and he will vote to re-elect Barack Obama for president. Unlike Ali and Zina al-Rishawi, Shakir applauds U.S. foreign policy and military action in the Middle East.  Shakir said that he is in favor of American foreign policy because it helps suppressed people of the world, including Iraqis like Shakir’s family, who were suppressed by Hussein.

“The main reason I am for American foreign policy is because they take it upon themselves to care for people that don’t have a voice,” he said.  “The U.S. is a nation that cares for people that no one else cares for.”

Beverly Clark, who has been teaching a citizenship preparation class since 2009, said that when refugees obtain their citizenship “over-the-top thankful.”

One of these caring Americans, Beverly Clark, began teaching Lincoln Literacy’s Citizenship Preparation Class in April 2009.  She has helped immigrants and refugees from around the world — from Sudan and South Africa, from Iraq and Argentina — become American citizens.  Grateful students have given gifts of cake, candy and even bedsheets.

“When they get their citizenship they are over-the-top thankful,” she said.

Towards the end of one Saturday class, Clark had Rakad al-Lateef doing writing exercises in preparation for the written portion of the citizenship test.

“John Adams was our second president,” Clark said, as al-Lateef began to write, the tiny pink and blue adornments on the sleeve of her black abaya dancing across the table as she completed the sentence.

Al-Lateef has been in America for five years, making her eligible for citizenship.  Regarding her preparedness for the citizenship test, Clark assured al-Lateef at the end of class that she could pass the test “today.”

“You want this [citizenship] badly, Clark said, looking al-Lateef in the eyes.  “I can tell.”

“Yeah,” al-Lateef said, her voice rising slightly, struggling to maintain her composure and restrain emotion.  It was an understatement.

Many of Clark’s students come back to thank her after they pass the citizenship test and have become American citizens.  She can’t help noticing their transformation.

“When they pass they are just like butterflies,” she said.  “They are just radiant.”

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