Photo Credit: Colin Lenton, Philly photographer
After 22 looooong years of living in Pennsylvania, I finally became a U.S. Citizen on April 19, 2012. This post is dedicated to my American friends to give them a glimpse of what it’s like to grow up a non-citizen and have to earn it.
I was born in Kuwait City, Kuwait. I left when two U.S. Ambassadors came to our front door to escort us out of the Country during the Persian Gulf War in 1990. My little brother is American and we were to be transported to the U.S. to keep the family safe. We had an hour to pack two suitcases. We left everything else behind and were driven to the airport where we boarded a plane to Philadelphia. Years later, I discovered my parents were given a choice in where to live, with San Francisco and Florida among them. My Dad settled on Philadelphia to be close to his younger brother who resided in New Jersey.
For the first nine months, we lived in South Philly on 22nd and Jackson. None of us knew how to speak English except for my father. I was eight at that time and I remember my 4th grade teachers would have me sit in the back of the room coloring during my classes. I’m not sure how I passed. My parents purchased a 7-11 franchise in the suburbs and that’s where we ended up settling roots. The store became a family business. It was open 24 hours and my parents alternated shifts. My siblings and I were put to work right away. We kept the store clean and we helped stock the inventory. Eventually, we worked the register as well.
It wasn’t until my older sister and I started applying for colleges that our immigration status began to present problems. We asked my parents for the information the applications needed and they could not supply us with the answers. They contacted an immigration lawyer and we found out that we had a year from the day we arrived in Philly to apply for citizenship under a refugee status. My parents had not done so and that meant we had to restart the process. By the time the appropriate paperwork was discovered and submitted, it was March of 2001 (or 11 years after we first moved to the U.S.). First, we had to apply to become U.S. legal residents which is when we would receive our green cards. We are then required to wait five years before applying to become U.S. citizens. The expected turnaround was supposed to be 7 years in all. However, 9/11 happened and all applications were slowed and subsequently halted. It was an unfortunate time, particularly defending ourselves from being called “terrorists” and hearing things such as “go back to your country.”
Nevertheless, we didn’t have social security numbers and had to figure out how we were going to support ourselves. Especially when my Father sold the store in 2001 and eventually left us. We all took under-the-table jobs – my sisters and I became hostesses and waitresses and my Mom worked at a deli. As hostesses, we made five dollars an hour and we collected tips as waitresses. Some days we made more than my Mom who earned seven dollars an hour.
Working under-the-table blue collar jobs gives you immense motivation to be your own boss. Being treated fairly is out the question. These type of business owners knows they have bargaining power. I jumped from place to place when it became too much or when warding off sexual advances from employers led to unaccommodating schedules or preferential treatment that wasn’t the fortunate kind. I did a few projects on the side like redesigning menus and conceived ways I would escape from my trapped position.
Going to school was a no-brainer and to save money, I attended Montgomery County Community College to get my Associates Degree. Life was a balancing act of work and school and it was all I knew for the next seven and half years that it took me to graduate college. Unfortunately, not being a citizen meant not being eligible for many of the scholarships available despite my 3.8 GPA. I paid for my tuition with my meager earnings the first five years and eventually took out loans to help supplement my income.
It wasn’t until March 2003, two years after applying for my residency, that I received a notification about my application and only then it was to notify me that it was being forwarded to another department. Three more years would go by before I got another letter from the Immigration Office congratulating me on becoming a U.S. Permanent Resident with my Green Card enclosed. Sixteen years after being in this Country and five years after starting the process, I had five more years to go before I was allowed to submit my Naturalization application.
It was during that time that I found myself at the Entrepreneurship Program at Temple University. I met experienced, successful business owners and I desperately wanted to be one of them. I had the privilege of being mentored by Chris Pavlides, the Program Director at the Innovation and Entrepreneurship Institute at that time, who unfortunately left us too soon. It was where I learned to share my ideas, develop a business plan and test the viability of an idea. I entered numerous Idea and Business Plan competitions to win the cash prizes. After a few failed attempts, I had the honor of walking away with three Idea Competition Wins, one Finalist Business Plan placement and in 2010, the great achievement of winning First Place for 123LinkIt, which became my first Company.
Some of my favorite experiences at Temple were interning at various businesses. First, I interned for my friend Gunter Pfau, of Stuzo, an online marketplace for textbooks at the time. Then, for a woman who was running a financial literacy program for kids. Lastly, my friend and I took on an additional internship on the side without credit because another friend raved about the company. It was for Team and a Dream and it helped early-stage entrepreneurs find funding, write business plans and assisted them in going to market.
It was there that I fell in love with the tech industry. I expanded my network and cultivated my business and marketing skills. Eventually, I made Partner and we shifted course a few times. I got the idea for 123LinkIt while blogging for the Company. I left to start working on it on April 1, 2009. In a previous post titled “10 Years Ago”, I recounted the ten years from when my Father left to when I sold my Company (Looking back, it’s a great pre-sequel to this entry). A small, relevant excerpt:
“That wasn’t an easy road either. I had a lot going against me. For one, I was a non-techie trying to build a tech Company. I started without a CTO. I found one halfway around the world. I bootstrapped the Company with money I’d put away from the consulting business. I lived at my Mom’s house to save money. My CTO departed in December and I contemplated throwing in the towel right around my birthday. My advisers and I thought long and hard about it and decided the opportunity was too big. I had trouble recruiting another CTO candidate because of the state of the software so I raised a small friends & family round and hired contractors to fix it. I eventually brought someone on board. I hired a team of four interns during the summer to help me recruit bloggers to our platform. The new CTO didn’t work out and it was getting really hard to keep pushing. Thanks to some smart preparation, my advisers at PhilaDev and I were able to turn a potential partnership into an acquisition.”
During the ten days I took off before starting my new position at NetLine in November, I submitted my naturalization application. I took my Citizenship test this past month and I swore in last Thursday and became an American at exactly 10:39am (Yes, I looked!). My favorite part of the ceremony was when the judge read off the names of all the different countries the attendees represented. She asked them to stand up when their country was called. I wish I would have taken a video of that moment. It was truly awe-inspiring. I looked around the room at everyone’s smiling faces. Some were teary-eyed. The feeling of affinity I felt was overpowering. We knew this was a tremendous occasion. If you have an opportunity to witness one first-hand, make sure to attend. It will impact you in a meaningful way. Overall, 88 people from 44 countries became citizens that day.
I HAVE lived the American Dream and it’s astonishing when I think about it. I came here as an immigrant, learned to speak English, worked hard to get a good education, started a company and reached a certain level of success by selling it. It doesn’t get more clear than that.
What I really mull over is how different my life would be if I never stepped foot on American soil and instead grew up in Kuwait. My mom and all her siblings had arranged marriages. Odds are, I would have as well (how crazy is that?!). She didn’t go to school and neither did most of her sisters. Maybe I would not have either. She had her first child at nineteen and cranked all six of us out by the time she was thirty (which is my current age!).
These “what-if” daydreams usually run through my mind on the 4th of July, when my family celebrates the holiday and think about where we would be if we had not come here. We’re grateful we’re not directly in the midst of the unrest in the Middle East. When my sisters and I look at how women are treated in middle-eastern countries, we know how lucky we are to be here and we’re thankful with every fiber of our being.
We don’t get to choose what country we’re born in or what socio-economic status… being fortunate enough to be born a U.S. citizen provides more opportunities than any other nation in the world. While we decide how to react to the hand we’re dealt, that one stroke of luck makes a tremendous difference on our lives. I wish less people took it for granted.
A few friends asked me what this event truly meant for me and what I would get out of it now. It’s true that the status would have benefited me more when I was younger. Mostly, I’ve felt like an American for years but I couldn’t call myself one so I didn’t really feel like I belonged. Now it’s official. I can vote and I have a voice in our political system. I can forgo further immigrations woes. I can leave the U.S. without being afraid I won’t be able to return. I can worship who or what I want without repercussions. I can speak out against the government, if need be, without fear of being prosecuted, imprisoned, or killed. I can continue to dream big and I’m presented with many more opportunities to make them a reality. I can eventually buy a home, settle down and feel safe knowing I live in the wealthiest Country in the world.
As always, having to earn something makes you appreciate it that much more. I hope this blog post reminds those who didn’t have to achieve their citizenship what a gift it is and how lucky we are to be in the U.S.A.
Update: Other comments and related stories can be found in this Hacker News thread. Thanks for getting it to #2!