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The volunteer teacher from Catholic Charities Indianapolis points to the copy of the Declaration of Independence on the classroom wall, stressing the words “Life” and “Liberty” that he has written in big, bold, black letters.
For the 14 immigrants and refugees who have enrolled in this class to pursue their dream of becoming American citizens, those two words have become the essence of their lives.
When the teacher explains the role of the Declaration of Independence in the birth of the United States as a nation, the students hear a story marked by courage, sacrifice and hope.
As the students’ nods seem to show, it’s a story that these immigrants and refugees understand and appreciate, knowing how it dovetails with their own efforts to escape persecution and poverty for the promise of a better life.
It’s also the story of their volunteer teacher, a 40-year-old man from Iraq who gained hope when he was granted asylum in the United States, a husband and father who also experiences the heartbreak of being separated from his wife and two small children.
And so on an evening in a strip‑mall classroom on the south side of Indianapolis, the dream and the challenge that is America comes to life again.
It was just about a year ago when Ahmed Al-Darraji—a dentist in Iraq— used a visa to attend a dental conference in New York City.
Before he left his homeland, he told his wife of his plan to seek asylum. He also arranged for her and their daughters to move to “a safe place” with her relatives in another part of Iraq.
“I escaped from Iraq because they threatened me,” he said about the Iraqi government before the beginning of class. “They wanted me to cooperate against my friends, my neighbors.”
After he lived a short while in New York, his cousin in Indianapolis encouraged him to move close to him.
“He’s helped me a lot,” Al-Darraji said. “I have a car, a driver’s license and an apartment. He makes things easier for me. America is a dream come true—well, almost a dream come true. My family is not with me.”
He took a deep breath before he continued, “It’s very difficult for them and for me. My younger daughter is always crying for me. I suffer.”
That pain has motivated him to help other refugees and immigrants.
“I don’t want them to suffer. When they come to a different country, they need a lot of help. I try to help. Catholic Charities can’t do it by themselves.”
Al-Darraji is helping a family from Burma and another family from Syria in making their transition to life in America. He also teaches a citizenship class, after completing one himself.
“We cover the history of the United States and some geography,” he said about the 10-week class that meets twice a week in two-hour sessions. “We study the United States as a country of laws. The test is three parts—general information, writing and speaking.”
Passing the naturalization test is part of the process of becoming an American citizen for immigrants and refugees. They also must apply for permanent residency in the United States. And they can become American citizens after they have been in the country for five years.
“I tell them America is open to all of you,” Al-Darraji says.
As the director of immigration legal services of Catholic Charities Indianapolis, Tim Winn is often humbled by the immigrants and refugees he helps to become American citizens.
“I know of clients from Burma who waited over 10 years in a refugee camp for the chance to come to the United States,” Winn said. “And once they’re here, they must wait another five years to be citizens. When they come, they have to learn a new language, which is not easy, and learn to navigate the complexities of transportation, health care and employment.
“I have other clients from Somalia and Sudan who have not seen their spouse and children for over five years—in some cases, over 10 or 15 years. I cannot imagine how difficult it would be to live your life in one country, to try to move forward with your life, while constantly looking back because your family is not with you.”
Refugee and Immigration Services of Catholic Charities Indianapolis helped about 1,800 refugees and immigrants in 2015, providing support that includes housing, food, clothing and job readiness classes.
The Catholic Charities program also offers direction on the path to American citizenship. The staff assists about 10 people a month in completing the naturalization application, collecting documents, educating the person on the naturalization process, and offering citizenship classes.
“To them, naturalization means completion,” Winn said. “It means they can finally fully participate in the rights and privileges of the United States, and lawfully accept the responsibilities that come with citizenship. Despite the hardships they faced in the past, all of these clients have a deep sense of gratefulness for what the United States provides them.”
Helping the immigrants and refugees has also deepened Winn’s appreciation for his country.
“Many have lived lives that we in the United States will never have to experience—no food, fear of death, walking for days across a country or multiple countries.
“It is greatly satisfying to know the stories of what brought them to the United States, and to know that this country has opened the door for them to live a peaceful life and to seek their dreams.”
That leads to the story of one of the people that Winn has helped to become an American citizen.
Prisco “Paco” Limon will never forget the joy of becoming an American citizen on June 23 this year, sharing that milestone day in Indianapolis with people from China, Germany, Guatemala, Italy, Mexico and Peru.
“Everybody was excited. Everybody was taking pictures,” Limon, 38, recalled with a smile. “I was really enjoying it. I called my parents in Mexico and told them, ‘I’m an American citizen!’ It was emotional. This is a great country, and this is a dream for a lot of us. I feel I’m a part of the country now.”
His journey to his dream began 20 years ago when he joined his two older brothers in Anderson, Ind. For much of his life in America, he has worked in the landscaping business. It’s also the country where he met his wife, and where the couple has created a family.
“Where we came from, everyone was poor. My father had to work from sun up to sun down, and still didn’t make enough money,” Limon said. “Since we came here, we’re not struggling anymore. We can put bread on the table. We work hard every day. We have our health. That’s when I know we are rich.”
At the same time, his family’s journey has been marked by heartbreak. Their oldest child, Lee, died in a car accident in 2010 when he was 18.
“We became closer to God after we lost him,” said Limon, a member of
St. Mary Parish in Anderson in the Lafayette Diocese. “We go to Mass every Sunday. We feel that’s where we need to be. Right now, our faith is our priority. Being good with God is helping us, blessing us.”
He also feels blessed by the help of Winn and Catholic Charities Indianapolis in helping him become an American citizen.
“These are people I trust,” he said. “I feel much support from the Catholic Church.”
He also thanks God for his life in America.
“It’s where I met my wife. Our children were born here. And it’s where I work. I feel like I’m home.”
Limon’s reality of becoming an American citizen is the dream that everyone in the citizenship class taught by Al-Darraji hopes to attain someday.
Ten years have passed since 24-year-old Zing Tial and her older brother fled Burma as teenagers to escape that country’s oppression and civil war. Now, she is part of an ever-growing community of Burmese refugees who have made a home on the south side of Indianapolis.
Learning what she needs to know to become an American citizen will mark the fulfillment of a goal she has sought for a decade.
“I want to live here forever,” Tial said. “And I want to get my parents to live here.”
Her teacher has the same dream for his wife and two daughters.
“This is a wonderful country,” Al-Darraji said. “It’s all about freedom.” †