By Doug Norby
Sundos Elias and her family fled their home in Iraq to escape persecution by the group known as ISIS, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. They are Yazidi, a people who have long been persecuted in the region.
“Every day in Iraq we were afraid to go outside,” Elias said. “I could not go to school. Because of ISIS we were so scared that we could not even go to the hospital.”
After fleeing to Turkey the family arrived in the U.S. in 2010 and was first placed in South Dakota, then relocated to Lincoln, Nebraska. Being the only English speaker in the family, 21-year-old Elias has acted as her family’s translator, a skill she hopes to carry over into a career as a domestic translator for the U.S. military.
On September 17, Elias was part of a group of newly naturalized citizens celebrating their citizenship at a ceremony held at the Center for People in Need in Lincoln. Citizenship Day in the United States is a day to reflect on the privileges and rights granted to its citizens by the U.S. Constitution.
Citizenship means different things to these new Americans. It means opportunity, in education and employment. It means safety and the right to build a future. It means acceptance in a new country with a new language. But for all it is a right they have earned, rather than one they were born with.
“For me, to be a citizen means that I can go to college, that I can have a job of my own,” Elias said. “This is something that would not be possible at home in Iraq. I thank the Center for People in Need for helping me achieve my dreams.”
All of the people being recognized at the ceremony had received their certificates of citizenship in the past few months, said Sue Saxton, citizenship coordinator for the Center for People in Need. “Today is a chance for them to be able to celebrate that achievement with their families and those who helped them in their journey to becoming U.S. citizens.”
One by one, each of the newly naturalized citizens was called up and given an opportunity to say a few words before having their picture taken in front of the American and Nebraska state flags.
Mohammed Aref arrived in Nebraska as a refugee from Iraq in 2010 with his wife and two children. For Aref, becoming a citizen means that he and his family no longer have to worry about their immediate safety, and they can now focus on their future in Lincoln. “The United States has good government, and they give a good life to my wife and children,” Aref said. “Now that I’m citizen it means that I never will have to worry for my family again. I am very happy to be a citizen in Lincoln.”
Mona Abdalla came to the United States from Egypt in 2002. Coming to this country with no understanding of the English language made the path to citizenship difficult, but Abdalla was able to earn her citizenship while working tenaciously towards learning her second language. Although she still struggles with her English, her smile spoke volumes.
“To be citizen is dream (come true),” Abdalla said. “Today, I’m very happy.”
While the ceremony celebrated the achievements of the newly minted citizens, it also was a meaningful occasion for those who helped them on their path to naturalization.
Becky Bailey, who teaches the citizenship class at the Center, congratulated the new citizens and gave them a perspective on what it means to now be a citizen.
“Today you are entitled to the same rights as the president of the United States,” Bailey said. “You have hoped, worked and dreamed for these rights. Today they are yours. The American flag is now your flag.”
After all the new citizens had been recognized, Sundos Elias took the stage to recite a poem she had written that encapsulated the feelings of all of her fellow new citizens.
“Life is beautiful, but not always easy,” Elias said. “The real challenge of life is to face challenges with courage. Let the beauty of life act like a bell warding away the trying times. Right now, I’m in heaven.”