Abeer Qasem, Jose Eduardo Chavez, and his mother, Odilia Chavez, speak about their immigration experiences to Fresno for Democracy Day. Credit: Dympna Ugwu-Oju/Contributed

Democracy Day 2022

At Fresnoland, we’re not neutral about democracy. It fuels our commitment to serve the public, our belief in empowering an active citizenry — and our protection under the First Amendment to do our jobs. In the face of growing anti-democratic efforts, journalists across the country are collaborating today on a project called Democracy Day. We’re highlighting both ongoing anti-democratic efforts and what can be done to stop them. This story is part of those efforts.

Hana Alkhalaf was 25 and a mother of five children when the Syrian civil war started in 2011.  On Tuesday, she sobbed as she recounted fleeing from “bombs everywhere” and crossing the border into Jordan where she and her family lived as refugees until they were granted asylum in 2016 by the U.S. government. 

She aced her citizenship interview on June 29, six days after giving birth to her eighth child. Alkhalaf said becoming an American citizen means the world, especially for her and her daughters. 

“I want to study more. I want to be a nurse. I want to work here, pay taxes, and encourage my daughters to focus on their studies,” Alkhalaf, now 36, said through an interpreter. “Because now we are a family of citizens, we can prove ourselves easily and offer our best to the country that gave us our nationality.”

Alkhalaf has also joined the roster of Fresno County voters and will cast her first ever vote in the November elections. The freedom to express herself, she said, is a privilege she never had, until now.  

Hana Alkhalaf, mother of eight, fled her native Syria’s devastating civil war. She has lived in Fresno since 2016. Credit: Hana Alkhalaf

Alkhalaf is one of seven immigrants, in various stages in their immigration journey, who were interviewed for this story. Of the seven, three have become citizens and cannot wait to cast their votes in November.  

While the seven had different reasons for leaving their home countries and have walked diverse paths to where they are at the moment, their dreams are nearly identical –  the privilege to live in a secure, stable and free society – and to be part of a democracy. 

Their yearning for democracy is in the details of the stories they tell, of treacherous journeys and mountains of paperwork for the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, of several denials and even threats of deportation, but mostly of a willingness to abandon everything familiar and even an eagerness to step into an alien culture and language, forfeiting family and sacred bonds. 

Alkhalaf last saw her mother and siblings when they were separated in the Jordanian refugee camp more than six years ago.  

Why do they come?

For Clarissa Petrucci, special projects coordinator for the Central Valley Immigrant Integration Collaborative, leaving Mexico, her home country, was less tumultuous than Alkhalaf’s, but still daunting. Still, she knew she had to leave when things started “to get a little dangerous.” 

Petrucci said she did not want to continue to live with the degradation of women which was commonplace. “Women are not treated the same. You had to live with those types of sexist comments, and things that will be considered sexual harassment here is normal. So I was not feeling comfortable.” 

Already employed by the Mexican government, she sought a transfer to a consulate in the U.S. where she met and married her husband, an American; they have two children. 

“I think we, all immigrants, have the dream to one day, become citizens,” Petrucci said. “I’m excited to participate in democracy.  We all feel that pride, and we are thankful to be in this nation.” She looks forward to casting her vote in November.

Clarissa Vivian Petrucci on the day she was sworn in as a U.S. citizen. Credit: Clarissa Vivian Petrucci

Living abroad was a way of life for Linda Renland who had lived in Thailand, Britain and Spain before moving to America in 2016. Renland, who is Norwegian, met her husband who was serving as a dentist in the Navy. They settled in Fresno after a few years of traveling around the world and living in Washington, D.C. and Los Angeles.

She became a U.S. citizen in 2021 and says of the opportunity to vote in the November elections, “I actually think that being politically active in the United States is going to give me more joy than in Norway, because when the stakes are higher, then you get more of the feeling.”

Linda Renland on the day she became an American citizen. Credit: Linda Renland

According to the Public Policy Institute of California, almost 11 million immigrants, approximately a quarter of the foreign-born population nationwide, live in California. In 2019, 27% of California’s population was foreign born, more than double the percentage in the rest of the country. 

The Central Valley Immigrant Integration Collaborative reports that about 900,000 immigrants reside in the central San Joaquin Valley.

“This land deserves loyalty for the freedom, the chances, everything you have here. It makes you fall in love with it. There is nothing in here you don’t love, you don’t fall in love with, just feeling security.”

Abeer Qasem, born in Yemen, emigrated to the US in 2013

The U.S. is home to about one-fifth of migrants world-wide, with more than 40 million people, representing just about every country in the world. More than 1 million immigrants arrive in the U.S. each year.  

Abeer Qasem, 35 years old, was one of the million who settled in the U.S. in 2013 when she sought asylum during a visit to the U.S.  She has not looked back. A trained teacher, Qasem was working with Doctors with Borders as life in Yemen got progressively more dangerous by the day.

“Yemen is damaged; Yemen is destroyed. It is on the map, but it’s not a place for living,” she said. “It’s hell – no education, no safety, no security. The medical department is not working. How could you live in this country? No freedom, absolutely nothing. They don’t have power for four days.”

She added that everyday limitations, like not having any say in her own life, made things worse and caused her to flee.

 “My family was OK and would let me practice what I want to do, whether it’s going to school, working with men or having a male friend. But even if the family is OK, the other parts of the family are not OK,” she said.

 For example, all her male relatives – her dad, brothers, uncles, grandpas, and even distant relatives “have the power to control your life, to tell you what not to do. So it was kind of hard for many things I wanted to do.”

It became unbearable, “too many things altogether makes you get to a point to say. ‘OK, I can’t continue like that. I have to leave’.”

Odilia Chavez was only 26 in 1998 when she too knew she had to leave Mexico, trusting the care of her 5-year-old son Jose Eduardo Chavez, to her mother’s care. With dozens of others, Odilia undertook the treacherous journey across the border to California.  Her son speaks of her incredible sacrifice.  

“She’s a hustler. She did all kinds of odd jobs from cleaning houses to working in restaurants. She’s a great cook, and she was a farm worker until she couldn’t anymore,” Jose said. “She’s about to turn 50, so she no longer wants to work in the fields, and decided to venture on her own. She’s a great salesperson, and that’s how she survived.”

Jose Eduardo Chavez and Odilia Chavez at a university awards banquet. Credit: Jose Eduardo Chavez

Despite almost a quarter century of backbreaking work in the U.S., Odilia is still undocumented. She has not been able to see her mother, with whom she left her child many years ago, for many years. She pines for her but knows traveling the way she came is not an option.

Her son Jose, who was brought to the U.S. at age 11, is now 28 and a permanent resident, waiting for his chance to become a citizen.

“She (Odilia) came because we lived in Mexico City. She was a single mom and couldn’t make ends meet anymore. She decided to try coming to the U.S., and it took her a while to get here,” he said. “So it was for economic reasons. And, I’m sure it has to do with safety and all of that. But, at the time, when we’re not comfortable economically, that’s all you think about and so, now that we’re here, we’re thinking about freedom and democracy. We’re privileged.”

Blessing Anyaebona, 47, left Nigeria with her five children in August. Now in Fresno, she is looking forward to a new life in America and “a brighter future” for her children.

Among her reasons for leaving her home country are decreasing economic opportunities, lack of security and interruptions in the children’s education because of incessant strikes by academic professionals. 

“It’s hard to predict what will happen tomorrow in Nigeria,” she said.

The long, twisted path to the American dream

Abeer Qasem described the agony, the torture of going through the immigration process.

“When you apply for asylum, you feel like you’re hanging in the air.  You don’t know where you are going or what you should do,” Qasem said. 

“Should you start something? Are you going to get your asylum approved or not?

“What are you going to do after that? Then there’s another plan of having to go to court, and if they approve, it is good, but if they don’t approve it, what you are going to do is always a question mark. 

“There is an end, but there are too many routes you have to take in order to get to your destination. It’s hard. Emotionally and mentally, it’s one of the hardest things I went through during these nine years.” 

Abeer Qasem, whose asylum application was approved in 2016, is still processing her citizenship application. She was born in Yemen. Credit: Abeer Qasem

Still, like most immigrants, she said that the prize is worth fighting for and that becoming American is a dream, embodying the ideals of democracy, rights, liberty, opportunity, and equality.

“This citizenship is worth billions, not money wise, but emotionally mentally, physically,” said Qasem. “This land deserves loyalty for the freedom, the chances, everything you have here. It makes you fall in love with it. There is nothing in here you don’t love, you don’t fall in love with, just feeling security.”

“Here, you have the right to tell the president anything, if he does something wrong,” she said. “I have the right to decide how I want to live my life. I didn’t come from a country that has this option. I can make a relationship or not make a relationship or drink or not to drink.”

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Dr. Dympna Ugwu-Oju is the senior editor for Fresnoland.