For Doha Salah and her family, arriving in the United States as refugees was a lesson in blind trust. “We had no one in this country, no friends or family,” says Salah, who was 9 years old when she was admitted to the country in 2008. When they landed at New Jersey’s Newark International Airport, it was with some apprehension that they followed a stranger from the resettlement agency to his van. After many hours of driving, the family arrived in their new home: complete with a balcony and a welcome gift of a stocked refrigerator. Salah was relieved, but she never forgot the feeling of putting her entire life into a stranger’s hands.
Most Americans don’t understand the struggle. They think it’s so easy—we come here and apply for citizenship. I think understanding the process should be a part of everyone’s education.
Seven years later, in 2017, as a high-school student in Philadelphia, Salah helped create a public art installation for city hall reflecting this experience. Called An Immigrant Alphabet, the project asked immigrant students to associate one letter of the alphabet with a meaningful word. Salah choose the letter T, for Trust. The project, she says, let her express her feelings about that surreal time in her life and connected her to other immigrant students. “At first I thought it was only me; only I had to leave relatives behind,” she says. “I felt like an outsider when I first came here, but when everyone was talking about their experiences, it made me realize I wasn’t alone. There were many differences, but there were more similarities. We all had to give something up.”
Salah’s family fled to Syria escaping the conflict in their native Iraq. They lived as refugees there for five years, before applying for U.S. resettlement so that Salah and her four siblings could get a better education.
But they have gained much for what they have lost. While work in Syria was difficult to find, Salah’s father now enjoys his job at a nearby college, and in 2015, her mother started her first job at a warehouse. They are hoping to buy a house in 2018. Salah’s family’s story of building a new life and home is not uncommon in Pennsylvania. Recent data shows that immigrants make significant economic contributions to the places that they now call home. In Pennsylvania’s 13th Congressional District alone, immigrant households pay $882 million in taxes, wield $2.4 billion in spending power and own 27,000 homes.
Today, Salah attends the Community College of Philadelphia, where she is a paralegal major. She plans to intern at a law firm in her second year of CCP, get her bachelor’s degree at a four-year university, and then attend law school. “Being an immigrant and constantly watching the news and hearing about all of the different laws made me want to learn more about politics,” she says.
She disagrees with immigration critics’ position that the United States should restrict immigration. “Immigrants come here because they’re trying to find a better place to live,” she says. “They don’t intend to destroy other people’s homes or take their jobs.” Instead, research shows that immigrants are often responsible for boosting the economy and creating jobs for Americans. In Salah’s district, immigrants are 83 percent more likely to be entrepreneurs than native-born Americans. And in 2010, about one in 10 Americans were employed at private companies founded by immigrants.
For these reasons, Salah would also like to see more continuity and consistency in the immigration application process. For her family, the process of being admitted to the United States took two years. However, her extended family, including her grandmother was not as lucky and have been denied entry.
“Most Americans don’t understand the struggle,” says Salah. “They think it’s so easy–we come here and apply for citizenship. I think understanding this process should be a part of everyone’s education.”