by Andrew Goodwin, Media & Communications Coordinator
One of the most important days in the lives of some of our refugees is the day they become a United States citizen. After five years of living in the America, they can earn the right to that title and all of the benefits which come with it.
This year, like each of the past six, Lee Branum helped World Relief Spokane clients earn their rights as United States citizens.
“I think the biggest motivating factor to help was that their faith is a trial for them since they come from a communist country,” Lee said. “I thought I could make a difference”
Lee faced his own trials in a communist country. He served in the 1st Infantry Division, known more commonly as The Big Red One, in Vietnam in 1969. The experience left him with a desire to continue to have an impact on others’ lives.
He has. Twenty-five of Lee’s students have become United States citizens over the past seven years, a fact which Lee cites while sporting a proud grin.
Alongside English lessons, which prospective citizens must take because the test is in English, Lee teaches ten Eastern European refugees learn the ins and outs of the United States government. Term limits, constitutional freedoms, and American history are all areas students must master before taking their tests.
“The best moments are when I find out they pass their citizenship exams,” he said, smiling.
Citizenship means that refugees can petition to be joined by their families, who sometimes are still stranded in a camp overseas. Citizens can also vote, and refugees proudly invest their time and energy into the democracy which welcomed them years ago.
The students’ successes are small rewards for Lee, who sees teaching his classes as an outpouring of his Christian faith. That’s what made volunteering with World Relief a perfect fit: It gave him a chance to serve his country and express his faith.
Lee cites his membership at West Side Nazarene Church as one of the driving factors behind his desire to teach refugees. “We’re called to serve,” he said. “It’s part of our faith.”
As so often happens when Christians choose to help others, Lee found that his service was spiritually beneficial as well. He’s thankful for the relationships that he and his students still have and still lights up when he talks about them.
“I don’t know how I would want to do this if it weren’t for my faith in Jesus,” Lee said. “I think teaching has been one of the building blocks past Vietnam that’s been so helpful for me.”
One student, a former refugee from Russia, joined the military just like Lee had and served tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. The young man is now earning an undergraduate degree at Whitworth University and the two still talk every few weeks. “He has more ribbons than me,” Lee said. “That guy is my hero.”
The student is also an American citizen now, which comes with more perks than being able to vote and run for office. He’s now a part of a community, both as a Christian and an American. Both have the power to be forces for good, to turn America into more than a place of refuge. They have the power to make it a home.
Few people exemplify this power better than Lee, whose faith propels him to serve the most vulnerable people in the world and whose patriotism moves him to help others become Americans just like him.