CHARLOTTESVILLE, VIRGINIA - Awadh Alsrya says he has two birthdays: "One, when I was born in Iraq, and the July 4th is my second birthday.”
Born to Palestinian refugee parents in Iraq, the 58-year-old never had been a citizen anywhere. But on American Independence Day, he took the oath of citizenship along with his two youngest sons and 80 others at a national historic landmark in this central Virginia university town. The lifelong refugee from a war that happened a decade before his birth finally had a county to call his own.
“When I passed my [citizenship] test," Alsyra recalled, "I cried because this was my dream for 58 years. It was a long time. I was waiting, waiting, waiting, and waiting."
The family lived in Baghdad, where Alsrya ran a successful grocery businesses with an Iraqi partner. Then came the U.S.-Iraq War in 2003, followed by outbreaks of sectarian violence.
“Every day when I open my door, I see dead bodies in the street," Alsrya said. "When I go to my store, I see dead bodies in the street. This is not life.” And when his business partner was shot and killed, and his wife was shot in the shoulder, the family packed up and left Baghdad.
Alsrya says he was consumed by fear.
“I closed everything. I didn’t need anything. I lost all my money, all my businesses. I only wanted to save my sons and my family to live because I thought one day, one week, one month later, my sons might get killed.”
They lived in a refugee camp in the Iraqi desert near Syria for more than three years. Water shortages, scorching heat, freezing cold and periodic fires that engulfed tent homes were a way of life.
The family came to the United States six years ago through the U.S. State Department’s refugee program. They resettled in this city, where they had a relative who'd made a home after helping U.S. officials in Iraq.
Alsrya still remembers his arrival. “Believe me, the first day when I came to America, I don’t know what happened inside of me, I just felt this is my country.”
Since then, Alsrya has worked as a frozen and dairy associate in a grocery store, which is in line with his former businesses in Iraq. His youngest son, who is in college, also works there part time.
Alsrya says he likes the job. " I want to give back America because she gave me a citizenship. I want to give her more. Until now for six years, I didn’t take a vacation.”
The Alsryas are among more than 3,000 refugees resettled in the area by the International Rescue Committee since 1998.
Harriet Kuhr, executive director of the group's Charlottesville office, explains: “There are jobs for them here. And then as they become more stable, they are opening their own small businesses. It just really adds a lot of diversity but it also adds economic impact. So the refugees are not takers. They are giving back by helping the community grow economically.”
Life is good
The family bought a house in the city two years ago. Standing on the porch overlooking his backyard, Alsrya says his life is good.
"You see now, I stand in my house. I am happy," he said. "But in Iraq, at this time you can't stand here outside of your house. Maybe somebody, some people kill you."
Shortly after becoming U.S. citizens, Alsyra and his sons, Amjad, 24, and Majed, 21, proudly applied for passports for the first time in their lives. His wife and elder son had become citizens earlier this year. Majed will take the oath of citizenship later this month.
“May my god give me more time to live," Alsrya says. "I will give back to America more, more, more, more, because America helped make my dream come true.”