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Shehnaz Reza: We decided to change our lives for the sake of our children

December 4, 2020

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Four days a week, I am the receptionist at the Indo-American Center in Chicago. As the door opens, I’m the first one to see people. I say, “Wear the mask, put your mask up, it’s not for show, it’s for your health. Use the hand sanitizer, we have put a machine over there. Go safely out. We want to see you again tomorrow.” I’m also doing interpretation if the people need help. I have four languages: Urdu, Gujarati, Hindi, and English. I do whatever I can for my center, because this is my second family.

Shehnaz Reza (2nd from left) visits Chicago city hall with IAC volunteers and Samay Gheewala, former IAC civic engagement officer. (Photo courtesy of Shehnaz Reza)

I was born in India. I got married when I was 18 years old and I migrated to Karachi, Pakistan with my husband. After eight months, I became a citizen of Pakistan where I lived for 32 years. I was a housewife, with five daughters and two sons. I got lots of practice speaking English in college. I have a BA from St. Joseph, one of the most famous colleges in Bombay or Mumbai. 

I was very fond of seeing all the movies made in the USA. I thought it would be once in a blue moon for me to go to the USA. My mother-in-law did the petition for me and my husband and we came to Chicago on January 18, 2012 on immigration visas. Basically, we decided to change our lives, for the sake of our children. USCIS gave visas to us and to my daughter. My sons came two years later. My four other daughters were all married. One is in Dubai, two are in Iran, and one is in Saudi Arabia. 

Living here was different for me because there’s no hijab and we Muslims wear hijab, and it was a little bit strange. But my preference was to never give up the hijab. As a Muslim, I feel so comfortable here. I am comfortable going on buses and walking in the streets. But it was difficult not being a citizen. Working as a green card holder, the main goal was to earn money to buy a house. For eight years I had a caregiver job for a 92-year-old lady. I also babysat, I worked in restaurants, and I cleaned houses. It was tough. 

One of my friends here, and my relatives who live here, advised me to join the Indo-American Center. I had to take two buses to get there, but I went there to learn how to use a computer and to make resumes. For two years I went continuously, and I got lots of help from the people there. In 2016 I got my job as the front desk receptionist for two days a week. Now I work there four days a week, from Monday to Thursday. IAC is very important to me; it’s my second home. Everybody here is loving and caring, and they gave me the support to move forward. Making these contacts changed my mind and made me think that we could stay here in the U.S. 

My daughter, who came with us, married and had a son. He was born here, so he is the first U.S. citizen in our family. After five years, I decided to become a citizen too. I came here with a green card, and at first I thought I would go back to Pakistan. But when I started learning and knowing more about the USA, my husband and I decided that a future here might be possible. The United States was so different from Pakistan—freedom of women, freedom of speech, freedom of everything. Parents have to make good decisions for their kids. And I thought I should become a citizen for the sake of my daughters and for the sake of their children. 

I wanted to become a citizen. I talked to my husband first, and then at the Indo-American Center there was an attorney who helped me. At first, when I applied, it was hard work. I was a little bit confused about myself. Did I make a good or a bad decision? But the Indo-American Center supported me a lot. They gave me the opportunity to take two hours from the job to go to classes. I took all the citizenship classes. They also said, “Your English is so good, it’s easy. You just need to learn the answers to the questions and the history. Shehnaz, you can do it, nothing is impossible.” My son also encouraged me, “You can do it! You can do it!” If you want to reach a goal, then you must work hard to achieve it.  

Shehnaz Reza after taking her oath of citizenship.
(Photo courtesy of Shehnaz Reza)

The fee was $725, and I paid because I didn’t qualify for Medicaid, so I couldn’t take the fee waiver. My son took me to my citizenship test. He waited outside for two hours. When they gave me the letter that I passed the test, I was so happy! First, I texted the news to my son. Then I wanted to get back to work, because I had taken two or three hours off. When I returned to the IAC they were all happy that I achieved my goal. 

I took my oath exactly one month later. I became a citizen on July 23, 2019. I sat in a theater that was all dark, and then the light came on and the national anthem began. I pinched myself on that day. I thought, is it really true that I’m becoming a U.S. citizen? It was a tough five years working nonstop, before getting the oath. I was happy because I can do something better for my kids now, as a U.S. citizen. After I got my certificate, I saw two girls who had become new citizens with me. I asked one to take a photo for me to send to my daughters. She said, “Yes Auntie, I will take it, why not?” Then I agreed to take their photo and we took one selfie all together. 

My husband has applied for citizenship. But his interview came last March, 2020, and due to the COVID-19 pandemic they sent us a notice that they will reschedule it. He applied after me because he’s not so fluent in English. At first, he wanted to go back to Pakistan where he was working full time in a bank; right now, he is working at a gas station. But his mind changed for the kids. My two sons here are also trying to naturalize. They are in the pipeline, waiting for the interview call. My elder son works in IT and my younger son got his GED here and is now doing a CISCO certification course. We are trying to make them into beautiful and nice people. I’m anxious to see my kids back home. I talk to them on WhatsApp but I think I must see them because times passes so fast and their kids grow so fast. 

Shehnaz Reza (middle row, 3rd from right) and her family at her elder son’s engagement party in Pakistan. (Photo courtesy of Shehnaz Reza)

I became a citizen in 2019, so
this was my first time voting. I voted by mail. I had to fulfill my duty. My
sons were proud of me. They said, we can tell our friends that our mom has
voted. If they had gotten their citizenship in time, they would have also voted
with me. But let’s see, maybe they will be able to vote in four years. 

Most of all, I like the freedom of the USA. It was a good decision for my kids and for my family. My hope for the future is to see my daughters. I want to hug them. I have four daughters, and four daughters’ kids, and I want them to get the visa to come here. So I requested that the U.S. government give visas to them. Mothers are anxious to see their daughters. I wish for all the mothers, like me, that everything will go smoothly for their kids in India or Pakistan or any of the countries where they are. I pray for everybody that God fulfills their wishes.