Six years after she arrived in Colorado, Eyni Ali is finally a citizen of the country she now calls home.
A refugee from Somalia, nineteen-year-old Eyni was sworn in as a U.S. citizen on Friday, March 29, at the Alfred A. Arraj Courthouse in Denver. Her older sister Dunia also became a citizen that day.
"I'm really excited. The number-one thing for me is voting. I need to vote to contribute to my community," says Eyni, profiled in our December 2018 story "A Fair Chance." But in addition to being able to vote, Eyni is excited to finally be allowed to travel outside of the country: Now that they can get U.S. passports, Eyni and Dunia plan to visit friends and family in Kenya this summer.
Eyni was born in Somalia and lived there until she was six. After a close relative was killed and her mother shot, Eyni and her family fled to neighboring Kenya. It was there that Eyni spent the next seven years, first in a refugee camp and then in Nairobi, while awaiting resettlement. Finally, in February 2013, Eyni, her two sisters and their mother were resettled in Colorado.
The transition to life in America wasn't easy. While attending middle school in Aurora, Eyni was bullied by fellow classmates for wearing a head scarf and speaking with an accent. Through middle school and the first years of high school, she was painfully shy, rarely raising her hand in class.
But after some encouragement from one of her favorite teachers, Eyni joined the speech and debate team at Hinkley High School at the start of her junior year.
She's since blossomed into a talented public speaker and poet, and now attends the University of Colorado Denver, where she's majoring in psychology on a full scholarship. Eyni also travels around the state to share her story for the Colorado Refugee Speakers Bureau, whose mission is to "empower refugees to create a strong, compelling and positive narrative for refugee resettlement in Colorado.”
Colorado — and Aurora, in particular — is home to a sizable population of Somalis. Of the 59,910 refugees and refugee-eligible individuals that this state welcomed from 1980 to 2017, 4,600 were Somalis. In recent years, Colorado has also welcomed high numbers of refugees from Bhutan, Burma, Iraq and the Democratic Republic of Congo, according to the Colorado Department of Human Services.
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The path to citizenship for refugees in the U.S. is straightforward, but not always quick: After one year of living in America, a refugee is expected to apply for a green card. Once a green card is granted, an individual can then live lawfully for years before becoming a U.S. citizen. To become a citizen, applicants have to pass a civics test and also show that they can read, write and speak in English. Eyni and Dunia passed those tests in October 2018.
Five months later, Eyni and Dunia joined 47 people from 25 other countries as they all became Americans in the ceremony organized by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. They weren't the only ones becoming citizens that day in Denver: At an earlier celebration at Four Mile Historic Park, 36 individuals from 20 different countries took the oath.
Eyni was the youngest person to become a citizen at the courthouse ceremony, where the judge presiding over the ceremony shared his own family's story of immigration.
Eyni and Dunia's sister Istar, already a U.S. citizen, and their mother, who'd raised the three girls on their own, were both at the ceremony to cheer them on. "This means a lot," said their mother. "I'm really happy."