On June 2nd, we began our day by making a trip to the Forever Young Farm, a small, organic family farm in Amado, AZ (one hour south of Tucson). Joining us on our journey were members of an organization called Iskashitaa, which helps to empower refugees and rebuild their lives. Among other programs, they identify and harvest crops that are going to waste in Tucson, redistributing this food to refugees. We made our trip with five UN refugees, one woman from Iraq and four men from Africa, all of whom had been in the United States for less than six months. Over the course of the morning, we worked as an army to harvest three types of garlic, tie them into bundles, and hang them on long ropes to cure.
While gaining perspective on the tough daily work of farming was valuable, it was also incredibly powerful to converse with the refugees about their path to the United States and experiences in a new country. Three of the male refugees were from Eritrea, a small country in Africa that borders Ethiopia to the north. In their home country, one man was certified as an electrician and the other as an auto-mechanic, but in America these certifications are no longer valid. As a result, they explained to me, their job prospects are primarily work as busboys or dishwashers. Despite the fact they could no longer work in their trained field and were uprooted from their home country, they remained positive and hopeful about the future. One man explained that in Eritrea he had no job and no hope, yet in America he had the opportunity to have both.
Admittedly, communication proved to be challenging at times, as the refugees had only been learning English for a few months. However, they made a strong effort to engage us in conversation and better their language skills whenever possible. I marveled at their work ethic while harvesting the garlic as well: they worked twice as fast as I did and took fewer water breaks. Whenever a new truckload of garlic pulled up, they were the first to jump up, unload it, and begin tying it into bundles.
As you can tell, my interactions with these men from Eritrea were simple and brief. Yet in these small moments I was able to discern the character of these men. They are hopeful, eager, and hard working. They are curious, kind, and happy. They are motivated, grateful, and earnest. And they want better. Despite only being in the country for a few months, the refugees I met that morning embody many of the principles upon which America claims to stand. In a country which does not always uphold the values it espouses, it was refreshing to find men who do. They gave me hope, and though they may not have the papers to prove it, to me they are just as American as we are.
In the afternoon, we heard from members of Scholarships A-Z, the organization at which I will be interning this summer. First founded in 2009, and it serves as a resource to all students pursuing higher education, regardless of their immigration status. The organization has created a list of hundreds of scholarships around the country that do not ask for citizenship status (i.e. a social security number) in their application process. Additionally, they provide personal advising to students and tutorials on writing résumés, cover letters, and scholarship essays. Each member of Scholarships A-Z told us of the difficulties they have faced as immigrants and as students striving to improve their education.
At age 12, one young woman witnessed her alcoholic father assaulting her mother. The traumatic experience drove her, her mother, and her three brothers to come to the United States without documentation. Though extended family members helped her mother to find employment, adjusting to her new life was challenging. Shortly after moving, the young woman began to have seizures and was diagnosed with epilepsy at age 13. Her constant seizures and feeling that she would never again be a “normal” kid plunged her into a deep depression. Battling her mental illness as it worsened through high school, she maintained excellent grades as a cover-up for the hurt she felt inside. Ultimately, she pulled out of her depression, her seizures are under control by an effective medication, and she now finds happiness in each day.
Enrolled in a community college, her current goal is to become a neurologist. She desires to help others with medical conditions like her own and to provide for the college education of her younger brothers. As an undocumented immigrant, achieving her goal is undeniably more difficult than it would be for a citizen. Due to her status, she is ineligible for in-state tuition, ineligible for many scholarships, and as a result unable to attend many four-year institutions (though she graduated top of her high school class). Yet these obstacles do not stop her. She continues to study diligently and serve as a role model for her younger brothers. Her courage, ambition, and love for her family are inspiring and unwavering.
The stories of the Scholarships A-Z students were similarly moving. They are all bright and hardworking, often graduating in the top 10% of their high school class. They are all family-oriented, wanting to help their parents and siblings. They are all hopeful, never losing sight of their aspiration of a brighter future. They face challenges that to some would seem insurmountable, yet their lack of citizenship does not prevent them from being just as American as we are. They should be celebrated for their achievements, not criminalized for their lack of documentation.
So often we say we are “proud to be Americans.” Why not let others who share our same values take part in this pride with us? America was founded by hardworking, family-focused dreamers. The refugees and undocumented students I met may lack U.S. citizenship, yet at their core they are just as American as we are. We should stop treating them as “others” and open our eyes to the idea that America is a country of many: many languages, many cultures, many races. Documentation is not what truly makes us American, and it should not be how we determine if others are American.