Being privileged to teach citizenship classes at the Center for New Americans, I have [re]learned much about America’s history and civics. Even more significant for me is the knowledge I have gained about the history and lives of my students and their countries. I’ll never forget the discussion that followed during a lesson on the Executive Branch.
“We elect a U.S. president for how many years?”
“Right.” And then without thinking, I asked, “Is this the same in your country?”
Two seconds of silence. Then, loud chuckles erupted.
Recovering from his outburst, one student tried to explain while catching his breath. “Yes…four years…or thirty-six.”
Several heads started shaking in agreement with his words, while lively side conversations in languages I didn’t understand seemed to express a mixture of frustration, resignation, sadness, and anger.
Another student piped in “We vote, but…only one name…one choice.”
Today, as we celebrate Independence Day—the adoption of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776 by our Founding Fathers—my thoughts are again turned towards my citizenship students. “Independence,” “freedom,” and “rights” are not abstract concepts to those who have experienced persecution, single-party states, communism, dictatorships, or ethnic violence. As someone born here and who has known only freedom and an active democracy, I wonder if this day has a special significance for refugees resettled to the United States because of what they have experienced and survived.
“Freedom isn’t free” is a bumper sticker I have seen while driving around Sioux Falls. Sometimes arriving with little more than the clothes on their backs, I believe refugees understand this truth in a way I never will.
So today, as I enjoy the parades, some sweet cherries, and the night’s fireworks, I am grateful for Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and Benjamin Franklin…grateful for the statesmen and soldiers since then who have protected our lives and liberty…and grateful for my students, their patience and resilience. Their lives lived here without fear is one reason I am proud to be an American.
Thank you for celebrating Independence Day with the Center for New Americans!