dima standing by pianoDima was born in Kuwait on May 8th, 1978. “When I was little, I had open heart surgery. My heart is very sensitive and I cannot walk long distances for long periods of time.” Though Dima did not have full human rights in Kuwait as a disabled person, she was able to attend English school for seven years. In 1990, twelve years later, her family moved to Iraq after Iraq invaded Kuwait, a year before the start of the Gulf War.

In Iraq, Dima attended public school for only a year.  “My parents were told by the school officials that I could no longer stay at the school because I had different needs than the rest of the school children,” she recalled. The school district mandated that she attend a school for students with special needs. “I learned how to deal with people with special needs like Down’s syndrome and autism. I taught students fine motor skills and even taught a girl how to speak.” Dima became a teachers’ assistant at the school and served as an English/Arabic translator for school visitors.

“Our house in Iraq was attacked three times,” Dima remembered. “Once, they put a bomb in front of our door and blew up our windows. We stayed with our neighbors and covered the windows and door with nylons when we moved back in. Another time, we woke up to a helicopter at three o’clock in the morning and American soldiers burst into our bedroom with guns. They had mistaken my dad for someone else and wanted to take him. I stood in front of my dad with my arms extended and told them, “do not take my dad’. They told us ‘we are not going to harm him’ and took him for two hours.”

Upon her father’s safe return, Dima and her family decided that it was best to move to Jordan in 2004. “I loved Jordan because the people there did not treat me differently because I looked ‘disabled,’ ” she said. Still, despite her experiences at the school and her volunteer work caring for other disabled people, Dima could not complete her education. “In Jordan, I was only allowed to do volunteer work. I was not allowed to finish my education due to being disabled. I had no rights in Jordan. That was why I applied to come to the U.S. with my family—to have a better life and a better future.”

After Dima immigrated in the U.S, she decided to enroll at Truman College. “I took English classes with RefugeeOne, but found them fairly easy,” she said. Unfortunately, Dima was only able to attend classes for four months, due to her health. “My heart started shaking when my heart rate was too high and I had to go to the emergency room,” she said. “They had to hospitalize me for four days.”

While Dima took computer and English classes at Asian Human Services Adult and Child Learning Center, she volunteered at Middle Eastern Immigrant and Refugee Alliance, while also taking ESL classes at Centro Romero. After Dima finished her Level 4 classes, she enrolled in Instituto’s ESL Retail Career Pathways program.

At Instituto, Dima received employment assistance to re-apply for a job she had been interested in previously. “I had always been interested in working at Misericordia and I had applied a year ago, but they did not call me back. I decided to apply again this year,” she said. With the help of Instituto’s Community Initiative Liaison Cristina Codina and Employment Specialist Francisco Marquez, Dima prepared for her phone screening interview with Misericordia and she passed. She was invited for an in-person interview the following day.

When Dima attempted to apply for U.S. citizenship for the first time, she was told that unless she presented her medical reports stating her disability, she would be ineligible for citizenship. The second time, when she presented her medical records and supporting documents, they were not approved as proof of her disability. Dima would have to take a citizenship exam in order to continue on her path to citizenship.

“When I learned that I had to take this exam, I was quick to ask for the support of my ESL classmates from Instituto. I asked everyone to pray with me, she recalled. Despite her unfamiliarity with the exam, all of her hard work and years of study paid off. Dima passed her citizenship exam with flying colors. “I still can’t believe it. God was with me everywhere.”

Dima currently lives in Chicago as a proud U.S citizen, working with children.  Her perseverance and dedication, despite unimaginable hardships, distinguishes her as an inspiration to everyone who has ever struggled. She truly embodies the spirit of Instituto.