Author: Maryam Zar, J.D., IRC Volunteer and Citizenship Class Instructor
I’m an Iranian immigrant to the US – an Iranian-American. I landed at JFK when I was nearly 10 years old, already speaking English, and drove to the home of half-American cousins, an aunt and an uncle waiting for us in a warm and welcoming home in a quiet suburb with green grass and paved streets. I lived the next dozen years comfortably in a town with a great public school system (which produced at least one Governor from my generation), safe streets, a sprawling mall and lots of good times. Although my green card came early, I didn’t seek my citizenship for another decade. Why? I didn’t understand how good I had it until it was gone.
Today, I teach an IRC citizenship class in LA. My students are all women, with the exception of one soft-spoken Guatemalan gentleman who studies hard, and despite his language barriers, knows his stuff and delivers it carefully. My other students are an Iranian woman, a Syrian woman, a German woman and a Mexican woman – I see in each, a woman I recognize in myself.
Each of them is in their thirties or more. Each has come to these shores on the heels of a personal experience that threatened the inherent freedom that all people crave. My Syrian student has seen the destructive effects of war through an ongoing conflict in her land, carried out by regional proxies brutally vying for power with the blood of people. My Iranian student has felt the heavy hand of a government that would limit her freedoms by virtue of her gender and squelch her thirst for learning by hemming her into traditional learning roles suited to gender stereotypes, in a land run by a theocracy. My German student is an emancipated woman who believes staunchly in freedom having seen the Berlin wall crumble in her lifetime, and is unstoppable in her conviction to live life to the fullest. My Mexican student has stolen my heart – a mother of three like me, a proud and dignified woman with a mission and a graceful wife who helps her husband’s entrepreneurial instinct, she knows her history and delivers it with humble confidence. I couldn’t be more proud to bring American history to this group, as they learn the civic lessons they must in order to gain citizenship. Why, you ask?
Because they know what it is to live without the fundamental guarantees of a life lived as chosen.
We study the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. We recite those famous first words, “We the People”, and we discuss what it means. They love telling me that “no one is above the law”. Where each of them came from, some people always are, and they control how the rest live. We recite the guarantees of the First Amendment – the freedom of speech, freedom of press, freedom to assemble. These are novel and grand ideals that people who have lived without, understand to be worthy of protection. When we learn that the Bill of Rights promised to all Americans the unalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, I usually end up welling back tears; and they look at me internalizing the fact that even now, 40 years after I landed in JFK, these words still carry the weight of humanity for me, as they do for them – my eager students yearning to be proactive Americans preserving this democracy.
Let’s welcome them!
Maryam Zar, J.D., serves as Commissioner for LA Commission on the Status of Women, is a contributing blogger on Huffington Post, host of Uncommon Conversations, and also the founder of Womenfound, a nonprofit serving women in lesser developed countries.