A Fight for Freedom: Zara’s Journey Towards Citizenship

Posted on April 5th, 2022

All names have been changed to protect the rights, privacy, and safety of the youth involved in this story. This does not include the names of Child Advocates’ employees.

Perched on the edge of the couch, Zara sat recalling the events that brought her here, to her relative’s house in Indianapolis, and pondered the possible future she may now make for herself. Her excitement, still significantly overshadowed by her fear of her husband, grew each day she spent away from him, free to make her own decisions and form her own 16-year-old identity. While she missed her family back home in Pakistan, she knew there was no going back. Her only path now was forward.

Suddenly, she heard tires squealing outside followed by a harsh bang on the apartment door. She rose and began to make her way towards the kitchen when she heard the door burst open with a loud crack. Her name, yelled with rage and hostility, echoed down the hallway. In that moment, she knew her greatest fear had caught up with her and braced herself for what was to come.

Zara was only a 14-year-old girl when she entered the United States under falsified documents. After being set up to marry a 30-year-old man, Abdul, by her family, she was immediately taken to the States where she and her husband set up residence in California in 2013. Once settling there, Abdul informed Zara of his expectations of her as a wife, and the many restrictions she was expected to adhere by over the course of the next two years.

Since she entered the country under documents declaring her 20 years old, Zara was not allowed to attend school or continue her education. There was no phone in the apartment, and Zara was not allowed to communicate with others without her husband present. While Abdul was at work during the day, she was locked in the house and not permitted to leave. These rules were reinforced by Abdul’s continuous threat that he had friends monitoring her around the clock. Should she step out of line, her family would be the ones to suffer the consequences.

After a year of living together, it became evident that the pair did not have enough income to support their modest lifestyle in California. Zara finally convinced her husband to allow her to get a job at the local Walmart to help bring in some extra money. It was there she made a friend who, over the course of the next year, would give Zara the courage to take her life into her own hands.

One day in 2015, Zara woke up, gathered the essentials, and rather than going to work, she caught a ride with her friend to the nearest train station. She mustered up all of the strength she had, swallowed her fears, and caught the next train to Indianapolis to meet up with some of the only other relatives she had in the country. Stepping off the train, she sighed thinking she was finally free. Little did she know, her fight was far from over.

After taking several days to settle in, Zara called her parents back home in Pakistan to let them know she was safe. Rather than hearing relief in their voices, there was nothing but shame and disappointment. Zara’s parents were ashamed of her decision to break her marital vows and flee from her husband. Unbeknownst to her, Zara’s mother immediately called Abdul after their phone conversation and notified him of Zara’s whereabouts.

A few days later, Zara had an unwelcome visitor. After breaking down her door, Abdul charged into Zara’s relatives’ residence, grabbed a knife off the kitchen counter, and proceeded to physically attack his wife. By the time the police arrived, Zara had suffered significant injuries and was immediately rushed to the hospital. Abdul was taken into police custody.

Zara’s physical strength matched that of her inner will to survive, and thanks to both she soon began her long journey of healing and recovery. While interviewing witnesses, friends, and Zara herself once she was well enough, police learned how she was illegally brought into the country. The police, along with the Human Trafficking Unit of the FBI, arrested Abdul and charged him with attempted murder. While he was being evaluated for mental competency, the Department of Child Services found a safe foster home for Zara specifically for high needs older youth and connected her with an immigration attorney at Child Advocates, DeDe Connor.

DeDe began working at Child Advocates in 2007 and quickly became the first lawyer in the organization to specialize in immigration services. She was assigned to Zara’s case in 2015, and immediately initiated the long process of obtaining citizenship by helping her apply for Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS).

According to DeDe, the path to citizenship is oftentimes discouraging for teens and young adults due to the delays and length of the overall process. An option called Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS) gives foster children the first layer of protection against deportation. This is a large portion of what the immigration attorneys at Child Advocates do for youth in the system with these specific needs. After a child in the system has obtained SIJS, they can apply for a green card. A child must have a green card for five years before they can initiate an application for citizenship.

“Parents are bringing their children here illegally, and some of these children experience neglect and abuse. They are then put in the child welfare system, and end up being left here by their parents,” DeDe says. “They are left with no status, so when they grow up and age out of the system, they are in trouble. They can’t apply for jobs, get an ID, or a driver’s license. They are essentially stuck.”

While initiating a path to citizenship for youth is vital work, it is also time sensitive. Their immigration world is slow, and it can take a year to 14 months to obtain SIJS. This status is only valid for youth while they are in the system. Therefore, it is essential to initiate this process as early as possible for youth struggling to obtain immigration.

“As we continue to grow toward a statewide presence, my hope is that when organizations become aware of a foster youth in need of support, they immediately refer them to Child Advocates,” DeDe says. “We are a resource, and there are so many youth out there who need this specific form of support. We are ready and willing to give it.”

DeDe Connor successfully helped Zara obtain SIJS as well as a green card. Zara enrolled in high school, met new friends, and slowly regained her health and identity through both physical and emotional therapy. Zara and DeDe remained connected through Facebook long after her case was closed, and the last notification DeDe received was in invitation for Zara to interview for citizenship.

Zara’s journey towards physical health, emotional healing, and legal citizenship was difficult, confusing, and at times, discouraging. However, with the help of Child Advocates’ immigration services, supportive therapists, and an excellent foster home, Zara is now a vibrant and healthy 23-year-old adult ready to use her past experiences to make her own way in the world and live the life that she wants to live right here in the United States.