Aguek Arop found a place to put his cell phone outside the US Department of Homeland Security on Avenue H in Omaha, Neb. He set the camera timer, then rushed to his mother’s side, his left hand holding an American flag, his right hand displaying a certificate in front of them.
They both wore colorful traditional South Sudanese clothing, representative of their origin.
The piece of paper in his right hand and the pride etched on their faces signified where they had arrived.
It was a certificate of American citizenship, the culmination of a two-decade journey that began in war-torn South Sudan in the late 1990s, passed through a destitute refugee camp in Egypt, moved to Houston after having been granted political asylum, then Omaha and now San Diego State, where he is a fifth-year senior forward on the Aztecs basketball team. In May, he became the first person in his family to graduate from college. In July, he became an American citizen.
“A huge deal,” coach Brian Dutcher said. “Even though he has lived in the United States since he was 4 years old, it took him a long time to get it. We are so happy for ‘AG’ and his family. Big moments for him this year: his graduation last spring, followed by getting U.S. citizenship. I’m so excited for him.
Refugees who have been granted political asylum are initially eligible for permanent residency and can eventually apply for citizenship, which requires mountains of paperwork, endless patience, an interview, an oral exam and a written test. Refugee minors usually get citizenship once their parents do, and Arop’s father passed all but the written part when Arop was a senior in high school and still 17.
He applied as an adult during his freshman year at SDSU, but could not afford an immigration attorney and was turned down.
“Maybe I messed up somewhere,” Arop said. “They are very picky. You can mess up a letter and mess everything up. I think that’s what happened.
He applied again last summer with the help of a lawyer provided by a church charity. Because his residence is officially in Nebraska, he had to conduct the interview there. He received two weeks notice of an available appointment at the end of June and immediately booked a flight.
The test consists of 10 questions chosen from a possible 100 that cover American civics, history, geography, and vacations. You must get six correct answers.
How many voting members does the House of Representatives have? (435)
When was the Constitution written? (1787)
The Federalist Papers supported the adoption of the US Constitution. Name one of the writers. (James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay.)
How many amendments does the constitution contain? (27)
Who is the Chief Justice of the United States? (The Honorable John G. Roberts, Jr.)
Name your US representative.
“Even though I grew up here and went to school here, it wasn’t that easy,” Arop said. “I studied a lot. I pretty much memorized them all. I was determined to get it right.
He did, but now he had to be sworn in to complete the process. It can take anywhere from a few hours to two weeks to get that appointment, and Arop was scheduled to fly back to San Diego the next day and continue summer training.
“I asked if there was any way to get in today, as I don’t have money to buy another flight to come back,” Arop said. “He said, ‘If you’re patient, I can get you in today.’ Then the computer froze. I was all afraid of having to come back. I said a little prayer. The computer unlocks and it says “Come back at 1am”. ”
He called his mother, who put on her best traditional green, yellow, and red dress and waited outside the U.S. Department of Homeland Security on Avenue H. Arop came out with his certificate, found a place to stall his mobile phone and set the camera timer. .
Only one of his eight siblings was granted US citizenship because he was born here. Both of his parents have finalized him over the past two years, as have two brothers.
One brother was not so lucky. He got into trouble and was deported in 2018 before he could get citizenship and the legal protections that come with it.
“I was like, ‘I just got my citizenship,'” Arop said of his July trip to Omaha. “But once I was sworn in, it started to sink. It was a big sigh of relief. I didn’t know I would feel this. My brother, he is still in South Sudan and couldn’t come back. So it was a bit moving.
As a permanent resident but not a full citizen, he couldn’t renew his driver’s license online and had to wait in line at the Department of Motor Vehicles every few years. He was also unable to obtain a US passport, essentially confining him to the United States for fear that he would not be readmitted.
His only option for a passport was from South Sudan, which gained independence from Sudan in 2011 and opened an embassy in Washington, DC, the following year. But that requires traveling to DC, which one of his cousins from Omaha did, only for the passport machine to break down. No passport.
A roommate regularly crossed the border to Tijuana for the food scene and salsa dancing, one of Arop’s favorite activities. “I could never go there,” he said.
Tijuana will therefore be the first destination once he obtains a US passport.
South Sudan is next on the list, a chance to see his brother and loved ones left behind as they fled the civil war that has killed an estimated 400,000 people and displaced 4 million more. They spoke on the phone and he tried to maintain a rudimentary command of the language, knowing that most of his family members there do not speak English.
The plan is to finish his basketball career at SDSU, then go next summer and visit his rural village. Immerse yourself in the culture. Taste the kitchen. Wiggle his toes in the African dirt.
“It will definitely be a culture shock,” Arop said. “I won’t know until I experience it, but I expect it to be a huge shock, an eye-opener. You see war-torn countries like South Sudan and what’s going on there , things that Americans would never think would happen here. You see people here complaining about the dumbest things and saying they hate America: America here, America there.
“I am much more grateful. My parents and our family, we didn’t have the opportunities we had here. I am extremely thankful and thankful. I have a lot of love for America. … I don’t take it for granted.
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