Coming to America

Taj is a Sudanese refugee, now living in Dubuque, Iowa. He became a citizen ten years ago, and he works for the Dubuque city government. Our interview covered topics ranging from the immigration system to what he sees as the core American values.

On his experience as a refugee:

I am a former refugee. I came in May, 2000. I came from Lebanon, and I am originally from Sudan. I arrived in Salt Lake City, and it was a culture shock.

I think that I learned what it means to be an American from the people in Salt Lake. Yes, I was on government programs. But what made a difference was the community. The people who helped with my language and taught me to navigate the system were amazing. There was a sense of belonging because of the people around me. It was tough – in six months, I had to speak English and find a job in six months to meet the government’s expectations. Some of my friends struggled to do that. The people who excelled were connected to the community, not just the government.

Becoming a citizen was a life-changing experience:

I couldn’t be a dual citizen. I left Sudan and my citizenship behind. It was very emotional to become a U.S. citizen. Finally, I felt I belonged to a country that values and respects me. It was a new beginning and a great feeling. The fact that I could vote and participate in civic life, compared to other places where you need to belong to a tribe or a group or have money, was amazing. Here you can be independent from anything and speak. That is a part of my core values now.

Immigration reform should be focused on helping the immigrants here:

There needs to be immigration reform and change to policies created in a different time. For example, DACA: most came here very young. They’re incredibly restricted; any crime, and they’re deported. They are citizens without the piece of paper. There needs to be a way to work with them, both from a place of American values and because it helps our country in a practical sense.

Refugee policy needs to change:

For refugees, the system has been better once they get here, in terms of budget. But we need to work in terms of selection. We need to be less discriminatory and care less about politics (between countries) when helping people.

We need to recognize everyone can be an American:

Within our boundaries, there needs to be a shared identity. I don’t mean holding hands and singing kumbaya. I think the key is for all of us is to be able to advocate for the country and to welcome anyone who comes to this country. Whether the Japanese, the Chinese, or the Muslims, there’s always been someone to put the blame on. People should be granted something for their hard work. We should recognize everyone’s contribution.

He’s alarmed by people’s lack of knowledge about our country:

When I ask students (in the class I teach at a local college) the things I had to learn for my citizenship exam, they don’t know the answers. They don’t know citizenship rights, U.S. history, or the structures of government. It’s not good.

We have many histories, and they all need to be taught:

We have a history of pain. We have a history of victory. We have a history of liberty. We should teach them all. We can’t favor a history we are proud of and not acknowledge the (bad) things that happened. We can learn from something we might be ashamed of and talk about what we need to do to live up to it. “All men created equal”: that used to mean one thing, and now it means another.

All the way from elementary school, there needs to be a sense of patriotism. But not in a way that puts down some people.

His thoughts on the American founding:

I am interested in how we liberated ourselves from the British, how we took our independence. Independence didn’t just mean to have liberty. It meant to have created a world that didn’t exist yet – in terms of freedom of speech and the people having the power.

He’s pessimistic about relationships across the political aisle:

I don’t think Clinton supporters and Trump supporters would say the other side are good citizens. People are now even calling each other un-American. But I don’t even know if they’d have a chance to sit down and talk to even call each other those things in person.

What he sees as the core American values:

Community orientation. Also, embracing the diversity in the country. Giving back to the community. Working hard.

This country works well for me because of the liberty. Because voting is a right and privilege. We are a part of laws, not excluded from them.

How we can improve as Americans:

Don’t take what you have for granted. Learn from what is happening across the world with other countries. Know that any form of injustice or dispute can be solved without turning guns against each other. Instead of being in our homes, it’s time for us to work together.

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