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September 15, 2023

Meet Five Former Refugees Celebrating Citizenship Day

Each year on September 17, millions of Americans celebrate the signing of the Constitution with two important observances: Constitution Day and Citizenship Day. Today, both these observances are celebrated on the same day so Americans can consider the special rights and responsibilities they have as citizens under the U.S. Constitution. 

Citizenship Day is an important day for immigrants and refugees who leave their country of origin and come to the United States in hopes of finding a new home. To refugees, citizenship is more than just a symbol of belonging to a country — it is the last step in a long journey to safety and building a new home. 

Meet five former refugees and new American citizens whose courageous journeys, determination and dreams embody the spirit of Citizenship Day.

Fiston

Fiston Mwesige is a former refugee originally from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. He was only 13 when he was forced to flee his country with his family due to intensifying violence in his community. For five years, Fiston and his family stayed in a refugee camp in Uganda. While safe from immediate danger in the camp, he had limited access to education and was unsure of what his future held.

This all changed when Fiston and his family were approved for resettlement to the United States. Fiston recalls initially feeling excited but apprehensive, “I didn't have any idea about Utah and when you're outside of America, you really have a different idea of what it is.” His fears disappeared when he arrived in Salt Lake City and his new community welcomed him with open arms. This warm welcome enabled him to become an active member of his community — founding Umoja Generation, a program that supports refugee and immigrant students through mentorship and guidance.

Fiston officially became a citizen of the United States in June 2020. “When I resettled in the United States, I didn’t just want to live here, but I wanted the opportunity also to become a United States citizen. I thought, I've been a refugee. I've been called a refugee for all of my life. Now, I get the opportunity of being called American, not a refugee anymore. So yes, I took that opportunity and it was one of the greatest.”

Basma

Basma Alawee is a former refugee from Iraq who became a citizen of the United States in 2016. Before she was forced to flee the country with her husband in 2010, Basma enjoyed living in Baghdad with her family. After their lives came under threat, they were forced to flee and leave their loved ones behind. 

When she first arrived in the United States, Basma was surprised by the amount of freedom she had to speak up and make changes. It wasn’t until a year later, after her first public speaking event, that she realized her voice and other refugee voices could make a difference. She knew she needed to become a citizen to achieve her dreams. 

“As an Iraqi coming to the United States, the first goal that we put in our mind is, ‘When am I'm going to become a U.S. citizen?’ So, the first thing is just counting how many months, how many days until I can become a U.S. citizen. After I became a citizen, my advocacy involvement really increased. I feel inspired every day to keep going, keep advocating for refugees and make sure that these stories are heard and our voice is counted.”

Today, Basma is using her voice to advocate for refugees as the Florida delegate for Refugee Congress and the Executive Director and Co-Founder of WeaveTales, a non-profit organization that focuses on empowering refugee voices. 

Methusella

Methusella Rwabose, USA for UNHCR’s featured storyteller from the 2023 Storyteller Celebration, grew up in the Democratic Republic of the Congo during a violent time for the country. At a young age, he was surrounded by violence and chaos due to escalating conflicts between rival militia groups and the national army. In 2008, Methusella and his family were forced to flee their village and sought refuge in Uganda where they would live in a refugee camp for the next seven years.

Living in a refugee camp was difficult for Methusella who just wanted to attend school. Although classes were offered in the camp, the classrooms were always overcrowded and under-resourced. In 2015, after years of hoping and dreaming of a brighter future, Methusella’s family was selected for resettlement to the United States.

The moment Methusella arrived at school in his new home in Denver, Colorado, he was thrilled. He didn’t waste any time pursuing the education he always dreamt of and quickly learned to read and write, made the varsity soccer team and joined student government. Throughout college, Methusella thrived as a student and even discovered new ways to give back to his community. Alongside a friend, Methusella founded a non-profit to support working-class immigrants, refugees and other historically marginalized peoples in the greater Denver area.

Methusella’s passion for education and community service demonstrates the powerful dreams and contributions all refugees have to offer their new countries. As a citizen of the United States, Methusella can now look forward to his future while advocating on behalf of other refugees. 

“The path I take moving forward is full of choice and it’s because I was able to find a life with safety and a chance to pursue an education. I’m grateful for that. But I'm also mindful that my story should not be extraordinary, and that all refugee families deserve peace, dignity and a future.”

Laura

Laura Londono is a former refugee from Colombia with big dreams of becoming a NASA astronaut. As a young girl, Laura was forced to flee with her family from their home in Colombia after crime and gang violence began to escalate in their neighborhood. They relocated to Ecuador and despite initial concerns, Laura found community through her passion for mechanical and electrical engineering, her school’s theater program and new friends. 

Just as Laura was beginning to settle in, her life would drastically change again after her family was selected for resettlement to the United States. Her new home in Providence, Rhode Island marked a new and exciting chapter in her life, but also posed new challenges she had not anticipated like learning English and adapting to a new culture. Despite these concerns, Laura was determined to pursue her dreams and sought support from her teachers and professors.

Now, Laura is a U.S. citizen, a college graduate and continues to work towards her dream of becoming an astronaut. 

“I think of other people that are going through stuff and, it might seem like there's no way out, that you're trapped and that nothing will ever get better. With a little bit of help, we can all overcome and be happy at one point. I just want to send that message to all the people that might be struggling right now, or who just got to the United States as refugees…”

Abdallah

Abdallah Al-Obaidi, USA for UNHCR’s featured storyteller from the inaugural Storyteller Celebration, was forced to flee Iraq after his family began receiving death threats. In Jordan, where they lived for eight years after leaving Iraq, they had no citizenship, no health insurance and very limited opportunities. It was during this time that Abdallah’s dreams of becoming a doctor began to take shape as he took in the pain and suffering around him.

In 2013, after eight years of living as refugees, Abdallah and his family were finally resettled in the United States. It was an uphill battle for Abdallah when he first arrived in Winder, Georgia. He had to teach himself English by reading the dictionary and was at risk of being left behind a grade. However, he persevered and graduated as the student body president and was accepted to Emory University. During his time at Emory University, Abdallah continued to work towards his dream of becoming a doctor by working as a medical interpreter and then an EMT during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Today, Abdallah’s dreams of becoming a doctor are becoming a reality. He is currently studying at Tufts University School of Medicine and is well on his way to achieving his goals. 

“I traveled 7,000 miles for a chance for a new home, for a future. Not many refugees are as lucky as I am. I am one of the few refugees given another chance. In 2019 I became an American citizen, and I’m so happy about that, but I still think of everything I lost. Like my family home in Iraq. We had a garden filled with white gardenias that I used to play in as a kid. Still to this day, when I want to think about Iraq and my childhood, I light a gardenia-scented candle and for those moments I’m back in our courtyard.”

How to Help…

Refugees come to the United States with many hopes and dreams for their future. One of these wishes is to become citizens and know that they’re finally safe and at home again. Join USA for UNHCR’s global community of advocates who are standing with refugees — raising their voices to protect refugee rights, ensuring they are welcomed into new communities and empowering them with resources and protection so they can rebuild their lives.

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