A few hundred of the many refugees who now call Spokane home gathered in Liberty Park on a cool and blustery Saturday morning for a celebration hosted by World Relief Spokane.
They came for the international food tasting, music and live performances to celebrate World Refugee Day. But thirteen of them were there to take the oath of citizenship, taking the final step of a multiyear journey to become official citizens of the United States.
Asia Jameel came from Iraq five years ago. She and her family, who are Christian, fled Iraq to escape persecution and death. They were in Syria for seven years before they were allowed to come to the United States.
Their time in Syria was difficult, but Christians aren’t killed there, said her husband, Janan Dawoud. He and their sons have have become citizens. Jameel was happy to follow in their footsteps and become an official citizen Saturday.
“I love America,” she said.
Michelle Burgess met Jameel through their church and met with her every Friday for three years to teach her English. In the process the two became good friends. She came to Saturday’s citizenship ceremony.
“She knew her alphabet and had pretty broken English,” Burgess said. “She’s very brave to come to a country where she doesn’t know the language and doesn’t know anybody.”
Yadu Adhikari and his wife both became citizens Saturday. Adhikari left the small kingdom of Bhutan with his parents when he was 5. He would spend the next 19 years in Nepal, where, he said, Bhutanese refugees were not welcomed and are not allowed to become citizens.
“We just survived really hard,” he said. “No opportunity.”
Adhikari has been in the United States for seven years. He’s happy to have found a country he can call his own while at the same time getting opportunities he could never have in Nepal.
“When I came here, my goal was to become a citizen,” he said. “It’s my country.”
World Relief Spokane helps settle between 500 and 600 refugees a year, Director Mark Kadel said. It usually takes years of procedures and paperwork before any refugee is allowed in the country.
“Refugees are generally the most vetted,” he said. “It takes 18 to 24 months for security checks.”
Kadel’s organization helps the refugees find housing and jobs. Adults are enrolled in English classes and children are enrolled in school. They receive some government assistance at first, but within six to eight months most refugees are entirely self-sufficient, Kadel said.
“They’re survivors,” he said. “They hit the ground running.”