On a warm September day, Hamza proudly stood with his hand on his heart and became a citizen of the United States of America.
“I am proud to be an American,” he said, showing his freshly framed certificate of citizenship at Catholic Charities’ Opportunity Center in Minneapolis. He lives about a block away from the resource center now, in a studio apartment he was able to secure with help from his case manager Melea Blanchard.
He doesn’t like relying on the generosity of others, he is one who likes to work hard and earn his own way. It is what he has always done through life’s trials—and he looks forward to regaining his self-sufficiency soon.
Hamza, 65, was born in Nigeria. While it is the home of his heart, he fled the country in the 1980s due to instability there.
“In Africa, nothing is permanent. Everything changes at once. Lots of people were dying,” he explained.
Hamza came to the United States in 1984 and lived in Bronx, NY until 10 years ago. A cousin went to St. Cloud State and suggested Minnesota, so he arrived in Minneapolis in 2007.
He lived an independent life and worked hard here. For several years, he would walk 10 miles from his Bloomington apartment to work at a restaurant.
“People would stop their cars and tell me it was cold outside, I told them I know it’s cold,” he laughs.
A hard working spirit may help Americans get by, but sickness can soil any effort. He was suffering back pains so bad it would leave him immobile.
“I couldn’t move. I couldn’t do anything,” he said.
Surgery offered much relief, but hospitalization and a stay at a rehabilitation center to regain mobility left him unable to work and he lost his apartment.
Homeless and recovering from his surgery, Hamza was referred to the health supported housing at Catholic Charities’ Exodus Residence in downtown Minneapolis.
There, he was able to recover with the help of nurses onsite.
“Exodus was very good…they take care of people there. Luckily, the people at Exodus introduced me to Melea,” he said. “She’s a great person and she takes care of me. She really fought for me to get an apartment.”
Hamza has been in the United States legally and got his first permanent green card in 1989. Without citizenship, however, Hamza has been unable to do something very important: vote.
Melea connected Hamza to Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid and he attended Adult Education classes in Minneapolis.
“I like to listen to the news. With what is going on, I decided now it’s time for me to get my citizenship so I can vote,” he said.
When asked his favorite part of being an American, Hamza smiles and says one word.
He has an October day circled on his calendar so he can return to the Opportunity Center and register to vote. In November, he looks forward to casting his first ballot, even if it’s not a big election year.
“In Nigeria, you cannot talk about the president. There is freedom to do that here,” he said. “It feels great to be an American citizen. Now I’m not afraid of anybody and nobody can tell me to leave.”
Are you registered to vote?
See if you are eligible by visiting the Office of the Minnesota Secretary of State website