Hispanic Heritage Month: The Road to Citizenship

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RALEIGH COUNTY, WV (WVNS) — Every day, stories of immigrants trying to make it into the U.S. and start a life make headlines. This is especially true along our southern border where Hispanic refugees are struggling, but for anyone wanting to make a life here, the story is the same.

Mustafa Rfat fled impossible circumstances from Iraq in 2011, forced to start a new life and seek asylum in the United States.

“I had my life, friends, family, I owned a car, I just finished teaching college. I started teaching at an elementary school and in one day, I lost all of it,” Rfat said.

For thousands of refugees like Rfat, the road to asylum is difficult with very few paths available for legal residence and delays in the process to become a U.S. Citizen. The immigration laws are complicated, and even harder to navigate for people who do not speak English.

“It’s something that is not impossible for someone to navigate by themselves without a lawyer, some people have, but extremely difficult to do,” Alison Peck, Co-Director of the Immigration Clinic at West Virginia University College of Law, said.

There are four paths for legal residency in the U.S.: family-based petition, employment based petition, humanitarian relief, and diversity visa. Rfat qualified for humanitarian relief and entered the country. He said it was easier to seek asylum prior to the Syrian Crisis, but the years he spent as a refugee remain the most difficult of his life.

“Living day after day not knowing your future, you have basically no identity,” Rfat said.

Like Rfat just over a decade ago, thousands of refugees are fleeing humanitarian crisis in Haiti and attempting to cross over the U.S.-Mexico Border, but their path is not as simple. Peck said for people facing crisis in their home nation, particularly in Central America, sometimes there is no other choice.

“Their countries are in such deep crisis and they’re just trying to find safety and security, and they’re trying to find safety and security for their children,” Peck said.

Rfat started a new career path in social work in the mountain state, earning his bachelor’s and master’s degree at WVU. He believes refugees help provide a new culture for different cities around the country and can open people up to different perspectives, especially here in the Mountain State.

“It not only richened our economy, diversified our economy, our population increased, it brought different perspectives so that only strengthens West Virginia,” Rfat said.

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