Zizi lived through two repressive regimes. Austin Region JFON helped her escape for good.
“When I arrived in Austin from my home country Iraq,” says Zizi. “I didn’t know anyone, and I was desperate to find an immigration attorney to help me apply for asylum. I found one who just made a lot of promises, took more payments, and strung me along for eight months.
“I was broken,” she adds quietly. “I had no family, my visa was expired, and my savings were almost completely exhausted.” She pauses and takes a breath. “But God looked upon me and brought me to Austin Region Justice for Our Neighbors.”
Not that she was entirely eager to keep her first appointment at a United Methodist church in Austin. A neighbor who knew the attorney at ARJFON had to convince her to go.
Zizi is, by nature, an outgoing and gregarious person. But experience had taught her to distrust strangers and dread even the most innocent daily interactions. She remained suspicious.
“My first reaction was ‘this is a scam,’” she admits. “I thought, ‘they are going to catch me and take me to a detention center and return me to Iraq.’”
Zizi didn’t enter through the front door of the church; instead, she walked around the back to get the lay of the land.
“The first thing I saw was this very friendly guy standing outside of church, cooking burgers and hotdogs on a grill,” she remembers.
“He directed me inside the church and I couldn’t believe my eyes. There were lots of kids playing and everybody was so friendly. They even invited us to join them for lunch.
“This was my first time in a church,” she says, smiling at the memory, “and I felt safe.”
Born a Refugee
For most of her life, “feeling safe” was something beyond Zizi’s experience. Seeking refuge in another country is part of her DNA. Under Sadaam Hussein’s regime in Iraq, two of her uncles had been brutally murdered, her father jailed and tortured for six months before he was finally released. Zizi’s parents fled Iraq to the dubious safety of Iran, where Zizi was born some time later.
Although Iran is the country of her birth and she grew up speaking Farsi, Zizi would always be considered an outsider in Iran. Legally an Iraqi refugee, she had no birth certificate and faced discrimination in educational and employment opportunities.
In 2003, the U.S. invaded Iraq, and the Iranian government began forcing their Iraqi refugees to leave. Zizi’s father was able to delay their repatriation for several years, but eventually the family found themselves in Baghdad.
For her entire life, Zizi had listened to her parents’ stories of Iraq; the superior culture, the beautiful gardens, and the lovely boulevards. But the Iraq of their memories was gone. It was now a war zone.
“We were terrified,” she said, “so much had been destroyed. How could we live there? There was no place to be safe from the fighting.”
Iraq was a country that both constricted and rejected Zizi. Everywhere she went, as soon as she opened her mouth to speak, she was branded as a foreigner and viewed with hostile suspicion.
Zizi, fluent in three languages—Farsi, Arabic, and English—still had few job prospects. When a chance to work with the U.N. as an interpreter came her way, she immediately accepted, in spite of her anxious parents’ objections. It was a dangerous job; people who worked with the U.N. were frequently targeted for kidnapping, extortion, and murder.
Zizi kept her job secret from all but her closest family members. She also took the usual precautions—driving a different and convoluted way home each night, for example—but she began to receive threatening letters, warning her to quit if she wanted to live.
“It was very stressful,” she admits, “but, honestly, I really enjoyed the work. Being able to help three different groups of people—Iranians, Iraqis, and Americans—understand each other was a good feeling. It helped me learn what I wanted to do in life.”
In June 2014, ISIS defeated the Iraqi army in the Fall of Mosul. Bombs, explosions, killings became a daily occurrence, and Zizi’s employers were forced to evacuate.
“We got left behind,” says Zizi.
To the Lone Star State
It was through the grace of God, says Zizi, that she was able to get a visa to the U.S. But it was a twist of fate that landed her in Austin, a city previously unknown to her.
Zizi had met an American who told her Austin was a nice town and not as expensive as New York City. So she headed to Texas, immediately applying for asylum once she arrived in Austin.
Not long afterwards, Zizi also began tentatively dating a man who lived across the street—the neighbor who told her about ARJFON. He was actually with her the first time she met attorney Julie Flanders.
“She listened to me,” remembers Zizi. “She told me she wanted to hear my entire story.”
And the end of that meeting, Julie had a new client and Zizi had a new attorney.
“Julie had so many other cases, and yet she decided to take mine as well,” says Zizi. “For free. No fees, no promises, no run-around. She took my case because she cares about women who need help.”
Julie filed two asylum claims for Zizi, based on her work with the UN and her perceived Iranian identity. Both circumstances would put Zizi’s life in grave danger if she were forced to return to Iraq.
Wanting to give back to the community which had embraced her, Zizi started volunteering and then—once she had her work permit—working for Interfaith Action of Central Texas, an organization whose mission includes assisting refugees.
Zizi, always a passionate advocate for immigrants, became an ARJFON board member in 2017. Meanwhile, the boyfriend became a fiancé and then a husband. Julie, her ARJFON attorney, now a dear friend, attended the wedding.
Last July, Zizi became a naturalized U.S. citizen. She had studied very hard for the test, making her own flashcards of the 100 possible questions and then grilling other applicants she knew to help them prepare as well.
“I loved learning about the Constitution and the amendments,” she enthuses. “But then they only asked me three questions. I wanted to answer more.”
Zizi’s passage to freedom was long and convoluted, and it could have so easily gone the other way. This is something Zizi never forgets.
“I thank JFON for giving me hope,” she says earnestly. “I thank them for giving hope to people who are living their lives completely at the mercy of strangers.
“Thank God you are the kind ones.”