Six years ago, Navid Berenji came to the United States seeking religious freedom, something he didn’t have in Iran. Berenji and his family are Mandeans, a 2,000-year-old Gnostic religion whose members are persecuted in Iraq and Iran. As a result, the community is rapidly disappearing. Mandean activists have pushed the U.S. to allow several of them into the country to practice their traditional culture free of persecution.
“I was a minority due to my faith, and I was considered inferior,” he said of life in his homeland, a predominantly Muslim country where Mandeans are less than one percent of the population. “I was out of the one thing that keeps a man alive: I was out of hope, all because I didn’t believe in what the majority believed in.
“We didn’t come [to the United States] to change the label of the minority group we belong to,” he said. “We came here to be accepted as human beings.”
Last Saturday, Berenji, 23, became a naturalized citizen, along with 27 other refugees in Austin, during a special ceremony in recognition of World Refugee Day at the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum.
Berenji is among thousands of refugees—persons fleeing persecution or fear of persecution based on race, religion, nationality or political opinion—who are adding to the state’s cosmopolitan character. For the first time, Texas has become the top destination in the country for refugees. Last year, more than 56,000 refugees resettled in the U.S.—one-tenth of them, or 5,600 people, came to Texas, according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. The state rose from number five in 2001, outpacing New York, Florida and California, popular destinations for refugees.
Texas now boasts the largest refugee resettlement program in the nation. The majority of refugees in the state are in Houston, followed by the Dallas-Fort Worth area and Austin. The U.S. Department of State assigns refugees to resettlement agencies, which receive grants to assist the newcomers. Houston, the largest city in the state, tops the list of refugee service providers with five local organizations.
Texas is an attractive place for refugees because of the abundance of service providers in major cities, said Amanda Posson, Austin area director for Refugee Services of Texas, a nonprofit refugee resettlement agency. The new residents also have a better chance of finding a job here than in many other states. “Some refugees are working within 90 days of their arrival,” Posson said.
The state’s new residents hail from 61 countries, but most come from Myanmar, also known as Burma, and Iraq. The president determines how many refugees will be let into the country and from where. From there, they are referred to the United States Refugee Admissions Program.
In recent years, the number of refugees admitted to the U.S. has dropped. Texas’ numbers have slipped from 7,918 in 2010 to 5,623 in 2011.
Donald Kerwin, executive director of the Center for Migration Studies, an educational institute based in New York, said the decline in refugee admissions could be attributed to additional security screenings established after 9/11. Others have reported that refugee admissions were adversely affected by the 2011 arrests of two Iraqi refugees in Kentucky who were charged with aiding al Qaeda and other Iraqi insurgents.
Immigration services determines which refugees are eligible to come to the U.S. based on applications, interviews and background checks conducted by the FBI, CIA and the State Department. The names, places of birth and other personal data are run through a name-check system. Certain refugees also receive an additional review based on nationality, gender and age.
Still, thousands of refugees enter the country each year, and after five years, thousands like Berenji become U.S. citizens. He has come a long way since his first day in Austin when his caseworker explained to his family that they should sit on the couch rather than the floor. Berenji was recently accepted into the University of Texas Health and Science Center at San Antonio. He hopes to become a physician.
Refugees hoping to one day become citizens also attended Saturday’s ceremony in Austin to support friends and loved ones.
Iraqi Suheel Dakheel, 56, a former physical therapist who works at H-E-B, excitedly took pictures of his friends and wiped tears from his eyes as they received their naturalization certificates.
Alice Collingwood of Liberia joined her friends in reciting the Pledge of Allegiance for the first time as American citizens. A survivor of Liberia’s civil war, she came to the U.S. with two of her children after losing her husband and most of her family in the war.
Dakheel and Collingwood hope to become U.S. citizens soon. Dakheel must wait three more years before applying while Collingwood is working with caseworkers on her application.
“If I said I wasn’t happy [for my friends], I’d be lying,” she said. “But I wish they called my name today.”