We have known Mortaza for about three years. His parents were born in Afghanistan, then moved to Iran where they had four children, including Mortaza. But because the parents had not been born in Iran, they and their children were denied the right to educational benefits accorded to full citizens.
Iran made them people without a country.
At the age of 15, Mortaza decided he wanted a college education and that he’d have to leave Iran to get one. So, with the support of his family, he left in the pursuit of learning.
Under the sponsorship of Lutheran Social Services (these details are not entirely clear to me), he was sent to Indonesia for some sort of refugee camp. After a period, he was given a choice of placement in New Zealand or the USA. He chose America because it was quicker.
Lutheran Social Services placed him in Fargo. He still didn’t speak English at that point. It was his job to enroll in school, support himself and graduate from high school before the age of 21. He was 18 years old at this point but had the educational background of an eighth-grader.
So he had 2 ½ years to get a high school diploma. The regular high schools told him there was no way he could learn English and squeeze four years of school into 2 ½ years. But there was an alternate education program at the Woodrow Wilson High School in Fargo, and he was allowed to enroll.
During this time he was supporting himself by working 24 hours a week stocking shelves at a grocery store, while living alone in a basement room. He received no subsidies or government benefits during this time.
Fortunately, the faculty at Woodrow Wilson were supportive and, because Mortaza was a bright, hard worker, he loaded up on his courses and pushed his way forward. He graduated on his 21st birthday.
During the last two years in this program, he met our family in Fargo. We befriended him and more or less adopted him as a son. He lost his apartment and lived with our family for the better part of a year. During that time he learned to drive and the family helped him buy a used car.
To make a long story as short as possible, Mortaza was made aware of a special free-college program available to 100 disadvantaged candidates. He applied and was one of the 100 chosen. It was a two-year tuition-free program (but pay your own living expenses) at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul. A two-year full-tuition scholarship was to go to the top four of the 100. The faculty, again, were more supportive and helpful. Again, Mortaza, applied his characteristic grit and winning ways, studying while working 25 hours a week.
He came out on top of the class of 100.
Now he has started the first two years of the degree program at St. Thomas. But he’s not considered a special student in need of extra help anymore and the competition is stiff, so he has to continue his serious concentration and hard work.
Throughout all this, the young man has kept in weekly contact by phone with his parents and siblings in Iran. They continue to support his adventures here. But they tell him the family is hurting economically by the U.S. sanctions against Iran.
For Mortaza, the USA has been a land of hard work, diligent study and unbelievable opportunity. He decided he wanted to be a citizen of this land far away from his family and childhood home.
In order to apply for citizenship, an applicant must be at least 18 years old; be a resident with a green card for five years; be of good moral character; be able to read, write and speak English; have a basic understanding of U.S. history and government, and pass a civics and English test. While working part time and studying at the university, Mortaza crammed for his citizenship test and passed. But passing is no cinch. In 2015, there were 13,000 applicants and only 8,400 passed.
On Monday, Feb. 3, our family and friends, eight in all, attended Mortaza’s citizenship swearing in at the St. Paul RiverCentre. Eight-hundred and forty applicants from 91 countries became citizens that day. About a thousand family and friends were there to support the new citizens.
We arrived an hour early and watched in the halls as the applicants arrive. We saw every shade of skin. We heard dozens of languages and accents from these folks who could read and write and speak English. And we saw a wide and colorful array of native costumes including a few caps I’d love to own. We saw all ages, from 18 to elderly. Many brought their children. One family, obviously very proud, brought two sons, about 5 and 8, wearing what had to be rented tuxes. They were dazzling. Huge smiles.
The ceremony included a roll call of the 91 nations, "The Star-Spangled Banner" (sung in many accents, often amid teary eyes), the pledge of the allegiance to the American flag, an oath of allegiance and citizenship, "God Bless America" and a speech by the federal judge encouraging voting, active citizenship, tolerance and respect. Many of the thrilled new citizens wave small American flags and smile their first “I’m an American now” smile. So much happiness and optimism.
“They’re Coming to America” sings Neil Diamond. It was exciting to stand at the gate and welcome them to their new home.
Mortaza’s favorite sport was the favorite sport of Iran: soccer. For his citizenship gift, we gave him a soccer jersey for the American soccer team. He’s thrilled with the USA emblem presented solidly in red white and blue on his chest. He’s truly an American now and proud to be a member of the team.
And we’re proud to be his fans.