My 17-year journey to citizenship

By Rounida Shwaish, Program Coordinator, ACLU of Pennsylvania

Today, I walked into U.S. district court and became a U.S. citizen. This is the culmination of a dream that began when I was six years old, when my parents, my brothers, and I fled our native country Syria to start a new life in America. We, like immigrants before us, sought the American Dream, free of the persecution that my family faced as Kurds living in Syria.

Our life in the U.S began in 2000 with a temporary visa in a two-bedroom apartment shared with my five family members. After being granted asylum, we were on the uncertain path to permanent residency and hopefully, somewhere down the line, citizenship. The process wasn’t transparent, and the path to citizenship wasn’t always a welcoming one. After 9/11, our applications for permanent residency were stalled. It wasn’t until 2007 that I was given permanent resident status at the age of 14.

In high school, I began to understand that although I was an American, the world around me didn’t view me as one. I was treated differently than my peers. Despite being one of the best readers and writers in my class, when we went to register for school, the administration insisted that my brother and I had to take an ESL (English as a Second Language) test. My father explained to them that we have been in the U.S. for a while. My brother and I took ESL courses in elementary school years ago. I thought it would be obvious to them that I was perfectly capable of speaking and writing in English. Months later, I would find out through my civics teacher that all this time I was listed as an ESL student and put on a different track than my peers. (In hindsight, my teachers must have been amazed at my ability to learn English so quickly!)

Clockwise from top left: my brother and I at a park in Aleppo, Syria; 2nd grade school fair in Pittsburgh; visiting cousins in Lebanon holding a Syrian Rebel Flag. It was my first time seeing them in 15 years; Niagara Falls with my mother and brothers.

When I was sixteen, after years of saving my allowance, I went into a bank with my father eager to open up my own bank account with his parental signature. The bank teller told my dad that she could not open a bank account for us “because of the Patriot Act.” My father said, “Fuck the Patriot Act,” and we left the bank.

These experiences and my ethnic and religious identity made me sensitive to the struggle of others around me. To me, being an American meant valuing the Constitution, free speech, religious freedom, and inclusion. I started advocating for voices that weren’t being heard and immersing myself in social justice.

During my senior year of high school, I began applying to colleges and financial aid. Luckily, people with permanent residency status were eligible for most (but not all) federal aid. Unfortunately, it was also the case that some colleges thought it made sense to send international student information to me. I was even invited to an international student dinner. I enjoyed the food and added this experience to my “I’m American but the world around me doesn’t see me that way” collection.

My last year of high school was also the year I turned 18. I was frustrated when I had to explain to my peers I couldn’t vote and disappointed that I couldn’t fully participate in the political process. I would find myself at rallies where a voter registration form was shoved in my face and I had to explain again and again I couldn’t vote, but I could make my voice heard and support the candidates that fought for civil liberties, the rule of law, and true American values of acceptance and inclusion.

Exercising my civil liberties and being an advocate by organizing students to protest police brutality

In 2011, the Syrian civil war began as I entered my freshman year of college. I realized that I would never be able to go back to Aleppo, Syria and see the house I grew up in, the neighborhood, the shops. None of it was there anymore. As the conflict got worse, holding a Syrian passport made me nervous. Nevertheless, I decided to take part in a cultural learning trip in college. My three-week trip to the Gambia also featured a stop in Morocco. Each time I took my passport out at the airport, I saw a look on people’s faces. It was almost as if they felt bad for me for carrying the passport of a country where people were being murdered by their own president. I felt humiliated. Three weeks later the trip ended and our plane landed at JFK airport in New York. I was happy to be back in my country, my home…America.

As I stood in the “permanent resident line ” I was on edge. This was my first time coming back from overseas and I didn’t know what to expect. The agent fingerprinted me and took my picture. But then another agent showed up took my passport and green card and sat me down in a holding room.

My heart was racing. I was scared and surrounded by immigrants coming into the country for the first time. Why was I here? The people around me were being treated like animals, getting yelled at for not being able to speak English or for “bad moral character.” Half an hour later, a man came out of a backroom, handed me my passport and green card and told me I was free to go. My plane was boarding and I hadn’t even picked up my luggage. On the verge of tears, my classmates asked me what was wrong, and I couldn’t explain to them what had happened. I just wanted to go home, but my own country treated me like a criminal. I vowed not to leave the country again until I had an American passport.

As my senior year of college came to an end, it was time to apply for jobs. I wondered what employers would think when they saw I was a permanent resident. Will they hire me? Am I going to be able to get a job? I remembered my father applying to work for NASA and being told that he couldn’t be hired because he wasn’t an American citizen and was a security risk.

College graduation, 2015

Over time my passion for civil rights and social justice formed because of all my experiences. They reinforced my drive to fight for other Americans whose voices weren’t being heard. On campus, I led protests, organized events around diversity, and wrote about social justice issues in the school paper. Eventually, my passion on these issues led me to work for the ACLU to continue defending the rights of all Americans.

We are currently in a climate of rising anti-Muslim rhetoric and discrimination, as well as blatant bigotry towards Syrian refugees. I am an American, and I wanted the world to understand that. I knew I had to get the money together to become a citizen.

The process for applying for citizenship takes six months to a year, sometimes longer. It requires leaving work for hours, finding transportation to the immigration office (which isn’t accessible by public transportation in the Pittsburgh area). The application fee itself is expensive, and hiring a lawyer is even more expensive.

Unlike Americans who are born here, those of us applying for citizenship are tested on our knowledge of civics. The officer went through my application question by question, looked at my paperwork, decided I was a person of good moral character, and told me I would receive a notice to appear in court and receive my certificate of citizenship.

Left: Finally getting my citizenship! Right: My co-workers from the ACLU were there to cheer me on, from the left: Sara Rose, Barb Feige, and Vic Walczak

Today I walked out of U.S. district court as a U.S. citizen. I don’t feel any different than I have for the past 17 years of being in this country. I have always been an American, but today I am an American with U.S. citizenship.

Rounida Shwaish is the program coordinator/office manager in the ACLU of Pennsylvania’s Pittsburgh office. She joined the ACLU-PA staff in 2015.

We are the ACLU’s Pennsylvania affiliate, defending the Constitution and the Bill of Rights through litigation, advocacy, and community education and outreach.

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