Incredible Odyssey Ends in Citizenship for IH Client

When Mathew Mayom went to take his naturalization exam to qualify for U.S. citizenship, he wasn’t nervous at all. After being forced to flee war-torn South Sudan, living in exile in Cairo, and then spending 5 years trying to reunite with his wife here in Charlotte, he was not going to let one test upset him.

Mathew Mayom

Mathew Mayom stands in front of the Charlotte office of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services after being sworn in as a U.S. citizen.

“I was ready,” Mathew explained with a smile. “This exam did not make me nervous because I have been in much worse situations!”

Mathew and his wife Teresa grew up in South Sudan knowing only war. The Second Sudanese Civil War ebbed and flowed across their homeland from 1983 until 2005. During that time, the turmoil and unrest became too much for their respective families, and they both ended up as refugees in Egypt. Although they were from the same part of Sudan, they did not meet until after they arrived in Cairo. While in Egypt, they got married and soon had their first child.

But theirs was not to be a simple “and they lived happily ever after” story. Not long after they were married, Teresa received a U.S. visa to join her mother and brother in Charlotte. She left for the U.S. seeking safer conditions and a better future for the couple’s young child. Mathew, however, had no family connections in the U.S. and he was left behind with only the hope that he could work through the immigration process to someday join his wife in Charlotte. A process that would ultimately take years to complete.

“It is hard to be away from your family. Not knowing where they are or how they are doing,” he explained.

For five years, Mathew and Teresa worked diligently to be reunited. During that time, Teresa earned U.S. citizenship and became a client of the International House Immigration Law Clinic. Working with Anne Crotty and Jelena Giric-Held, she petitioned the U.S. government for visa for Mathew. After two years of forms, paperwork, and filings, they were finally able to secure a green card for Mathew and he arrived in Charlotte in 2010.

The law clinic’s work was not done however. There were legal procedures with his permanent residence card that had to be followed after he arrived in the country and then, together, they tackled the last hurdle — getting U.S. citizenship for Mathew.

“It was an amazing thing”, recalls Mathew. “They helped me with the fee waiver for the naturalization fee. Jelena gave me a study guide and tested me to make sure I was ready.” And on the day of the exam, Jelena went with Mathew for moral support.

Mathew passed the exam easily and one week later, at the Charlotte office of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, he was sworn in as a U.S. citizen. That naturalization ceremony completed an odyssey that had begun nearly 15 years earlier.

“To become a citizen of the US is a huge opportunity. Especially for me because I am trying to pursue my education. It will allow me to compete for different and better jobs. As a citizen you have all opportunities open in front of you.”

Life is looking up for Teresa and Mathew these days. They have three children now and Mathew thanks IH for helping make that possible. “I’m happy to have my wife and kids with me everyday now. I am grateful to the Law Clinic for reuniting me with my family. They do a great job for a lot of people.”

Mathew’s eyes sparkle as he talks about his new life in Charlotte, and he flashes the wide contented smile of a man who has finally arrived home after a long and arduous journey.

Generous Donors Make Legacy Gift to International House

Although International House’s capital campaign was mostly complete at the end of 2012, higher than anticipated renovation costs for our move to the former Midwood High School meant that we were left with a $69,000 gap to cover construction expenses. Three generous couples have helped us close that gap through a September legacy gift of $30,000. We are delighted to announce that long term supporters Tony and Lakana Bikhazi coordinated a combined gift with their friends, Ziad and Roula Korban of Hong Kong, and Edouard and Rita Rassie of Lebanon. We are pleased to honor the Bikhazi’s, Korban’s and Rassie’s with Ambassador Level Recognition for their generous gift and named sponsorship of the large auditorium space here at the Midwood International & Cultural Center.

Tony and Lakana

Lakana and Tony Bikhazi

“We support the International House team for all the humanitarian and social activities they do in helping new comers assimilate and enjoy a better life”, said the Bikhazi’s who were co-chairs of International House’s 2012 capital campaign. Tony is from Lebanon, and Lakana from Thailand. Their own experience as immigrants who have built successful lives in the United States has given them great compassion for others who arrive in Charlotte from countries around the globe. Lakana Bikhazi has also given her time and energy for many years as the coordinator of the Doorways group at International House. Doorways provides a monthly opportunity to international women in Charlotte who want to meet new friends while enjoying programs and excursions to various places of interest.

Edouard Rassie expresses a similar motivation for their donation: “We lived in Charlotte for 14 years starting in 1988, and we are very familiar with the International House and its activities… we are very proud of what the International House has become and the help you provide to the members of the international community in the Charlotte metropolitan area.”

International House is deeply grateful for the generosity of the Rassie’s, Korban’s and Bikhazi’s. Their gift will continue our work of welcoming newcomers to Charlotte from around the world. It is because of people like them, and many other kind donors who support International House, that we can keep up the programs and services that turn strangers into neighbors!

Dedicated Tutor Helps Student Achieve Her Dream


Megan Mavity, Maricela Boyzo, and Priscilla Sawicki

Growing up in Mexico, Maricela Boyzo’s father believed that children should work and not go to school. So when she arrived in the USA as a young bride, not only could she not speak English, but she could also not read or write in her native Spanish.

After years of struggling with a new language, Maricela enrolled in International House’s English Tutoring program in 2011 and was paired with IH tutor Priscilla Sawicki. Priscilla is a retired school teacher who spent many years overseas, and has a keen appreciation for the difficulties faced by non-native speakers as they attempt to navigate the details of everyday life.

Within moments of their meeting, Priscilla realized that Maricela faced many more challenges than the typical student in IH’s English program. “Maricela told me that she had never been to school. She didn’t even know the alphabet. I realized within minutes that Maricela and I were going back to 1st grade.”

Despite the considerable obstacles, Maricela was determined to learn, and Priscilla was there to help her every step of the way. They met twice a week during that first year and their hard work paid off. “I would reinforce the lessons taught in the ESL class at International House” explains Priscilla. “We were really able to concentrate on what Maricela needed to do and needed to understand. At the end of that first year, she had the basics and wanted to move on to citizenship classes.”

Maricela again showed incredible determination and went through 8 cycles of citizenship training to prepare for her USCIS citizenship exam. Maricela had to prepare to answer from a list of 100 civics and history questions featured on the exam, be able to read English, and also be able to write a sentence in English.

After two years of preparation, Maricela was ready to take the exam. This time, however, she would have to be on her own – without her teacher and good friend to guide the way. Fortunately they had practiced so many times that Maricela knew exactly to expect. She was apprehensive, but philosophical. “Yes, I was a little bit nervous. It’s normal!” After the exam was finished, Maricela’s excited daughter called Priscilla to give her the good news that her mother had passed the exam! Then, just two days later, Maricela attended her naturalization ceremony and in June of 2014 became a U.S. citizen.

As a citizen, Maricela’s job prospects are considerably improved, and she can travel more freely back and forth to visit family in Mexico. Priscilla is confident that the real winner in this story is Charlotte. “Immigration is something we all talk about now, but this path to citizenship is long and difficult and expensive. When you have someone as motivated as Maricela to overcome incredible obstacles it is a pleasure to have her as a fellow citizen. Maricela will definitely be an asset to our community.”

Priscilla would also encourage others to join her as a tutor at IH. “This has been one of the most rewarding things that I’ve ever done. Not only did I meet a really special person, but I helped her achieve her goal. It’s worth every minute. And the person you help is so appreciative.”

Maricela really is appreciative. With a huge smile and an arm wrapped around her friend she says, “A very good friend. I love her!”

Do You Believe?

Do You Believe?
From Denise Cumbee Long, Executive Director of International House

I recently made a presentation about International House at a local rotary club meeting. Afterwards, one of the members came up to me and exclaimed, “Wow! I saw your financials in your annual report. I am amazed at how much you guys do with a very modest budget. It’s really impressive!”

It’s true. International House serves thousands of people every year through our immigration law clinic, education programs, cultural events, and international visitor programs, and we do it on a small budget through the hard work of a small dedicated staff and many great volunteers. We are able to survive and grow because of the support of people like you who believe in the importance of what we do.

We have just launched our summer fundraising campaign and hope you will take a moment to think about the value of International House to the Charlotte community, and indeed to the world. Does our work reflect what you believe to be true?

Do you believe that Charlotte is richer for its global connections and our diverse international communities? Do you think our world is a more peaceful place when citizens of different countries share a meal, exchange ideas, and learn from one another? Do you believe the words of the Statue of Liberty still ring true: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free”? Do you want to see compassionate assistance offered to those who have escaped danger and hardship and are working hard to learn English and become self-sufficient citizens?

If so, then we hope you believe in the power of what International House has been doing every day since 1981. Today’s economic climate is not kind to nonprofits. International House receives no United Way funding and cannot survive on private or government grants alone. The generosity of our supporters is critical for us to continue to be the place where Charlotte welcomes the world. We know there are many of you out there who believe in us! Please take a moment to click on the link below and make your gift today!

Donate Online Here

Thank you!



After 13 Years, A Dream Comes True for Eritrean Family

For 13 years, Musie dreamed of the day he would be permanently reunited with his wife and children.  Three weeks ago, with the help of the International House Legal Clinic, that dream finally came true.

Musie left Eritrea in 2001 to escape civil unrest and to pave a way to a new life for the wife and very young children he had to leave behind.  He made his way to the United States as a political refugee and was granted asylum.   Ultimately, Musie arrived in Charlotte where he had family.   He came here because he knew he would find, in his words, “freedom in the United States”.Image

As arduous and stressful as was the journey to Charlotte, Musie’s long and tangled journey through petitions, paperwork, and bureaucratic channels to get his wife and children to Charlotte was just beginning.   He worked two jobs – often 16-17 hours a day – to pay for his own modest living arrangements in Charlotte, and to save money to send back to his wife Abrehet and his children.  His son Yonas and daughter Elsa were ages 5 and 3 when he left.

Eventually, Albrehet needed medical care unavailable in Eritrea and was allowed to travel to Kenya for the procedure.   The children, Yonas and Elsa, had to be left in Eritrea with friends and family.   Once she was out, Albrehet and Musie decided it would be better to have the children join her in Kenya and wait in Nairobi for their approval to join Musie in the U.S.

For two more years, Albrehet lived without her husband or children.  Finally they found a way to get the children out of Eritria where they were joyously reunited with their mom in Kenya.   They were now one step closer to being reunited as a family in America.

As the years passed, Musie continued to work two jobs, sent money home, learned English, and eventually applied for U.S. citizenship.  He was also able to travel to Kenya to see his family for brief visits in 2009 and 2012 – having gone 8 years without seeing his wife or children.   In 2010, Musie and Albrehet had a third child, Ocean, born in Kenya.

Still alone in the U.S., Musie achieved his U.S. citizenship in May 2012 and shortly thereafter found himself at International House’s Legal Clinic seeking assistance in untangling the legal and paperwork morass that had his family’s  dream to emigrate to the U.S. completely stalled.   Albrehet had been approved to rejoin her husband in Charlotte.   But the two older children’s files seemed hopelessly lost.

At this point, Jelena Giric-Held, Director of the International House Legal Clinic, got involved.  As she explains, “Musie had his first consultation with us in 2012. He came to seek help with bringing his family here from Kenya.  He had filed refugee petitions seven years earlier in February 2005, and the documents were misplaced and forgotten by government agencies.  Working with North Carolina Senator Kay Hagan, we were eventually able to locate the petitions for the older children, one in Texas and one in Nairobi, and proceed with their cases.”

This was a particularly difficult situation because each of the four people seeking to enter the US was at a different stage of processing.

With the help of Senator Hagan’s immigration liaison, Jelena tracked down each of the cases and kept things moving forward.  The biggest challenge was the timing.  All four had to be approved for travel at about the same time so that Albrehet could travel to the U.S. with her three children.

During this long final stage of the process, Musie would come to visit the Legal Clinic almost every Friday.   After a decade of struggling, his mood would depend on the news from that week.  “Sometimes he was frustrated,”  says Jelena.   “Sometimes he was happy.  Sometimes he would cry and you could tell how incredibly tired he was.”

Then, last month, Jelena was working in her office when someone told her that Musie was in the waiting area.  Jelena walked out of her office expecting to discuss the latest updates with Musie.  But this time, instead of having a tired, sad expression, Musie was grinning from ear to ear.

“I will never forget the look on Musie’s face when I opened the door”, Jelena explained. “The first thing I saw was Musie’s big smile and obvious excitement. Then I glanced over and saw Abrehet … and Yonas … and Elsa … and Ocean!  I knew all of them all already because I have seen their photographs so many times!  It was a very emotional moment. We all hugged and were teary eyed. After all, we have known each other for a couple of years already and had been in touch on almost a weekly basis. We were old friends!”

Musie and his family are living together now for the first time in 13 years – and their smiles and words confirm that all the struggle and sacrifice was worth the effort.   Musie never considered giving up.  The two children he had to leave behind are now 18 and 16.  And he has a 4 year old daughter not even born when the saga began.  “I was very sure that the family would come.  I never gave up hope”.

His perseverance was rewarded and Jelena is confident that Charlotte will be a better place because of Musie’s work.  “He has worked two jobs ever since he came to us. He is respected at his work. His family means everything to him. He is a devoted husband and father and a great role model for his children. This family will accomplish a lot. The older children are eager to  complete high school and enroll at CPCC as a prelude to the University.  Coming to the U.S. will enable them to move forward as a family, with education and stability, so that they can be active members of our community.”

A long road still lies ahead of the family – but at least they can travel that road together now.   The children are excited to call Charlotte home.  “Everyone is very helpful and willing to help us”, says Yonas.

There is still work to be done, and International House will continue to assist Musie and family.  The Legal Clinic will work with the family to help them adjust their status to Permanent Residents and eventually, help them become U.S. citizens, except for Ocean, who, as the daughter of a U.S. citizen, became a citizen upon arrival

Thirteen years after he left behind a young wife, two small children, and everything he knew,  Musie’s eyes shine with the happiness and hope of having his family all under one-roof, prepared to tackle all future challenges – together again.


Telling Our Story


Photo Source:

By: Denise Cumbee Long, Executive Director

When I am out in the community and asked about International House, I am reminded of the importance of a good “elevator speech”.  Often, someone will ask me what I do, and that is easy enough to answer: I am the Executive Director of International House, an incredible nonprofit organization that has been part of the Charlotte landscape for over 30 years. But, then the next question is a bit harder:  “That’s nice. But what does International House do?”

What is the short answer to that question? International House is not a typical nonprofit with one focus that can easily be described in the span of an elevator ride. We are not a school, law firm, food pantry or homeless shelter. We do not simply address one issue or one area of human need. Rather, we are an interesting blend of programs and direct services that benefit foreign-born residents of Charlotte, international guests, and native Charlotteans. It is a challenge to sum up the good things we do in a few words!

However, I find that the best answer I can give to the curious person standing across from me in an elevator, at a social event or in a professional meeting is this: International House is the place where Charlotte welcomes the world. We do this in two ways. First, we provide direct services to low-income immigrants and refugees in order to help them become self-sufficient members of their new home country and city. Our legal clinic helps those with a path to citizenship gain legal status. With legal status comes better employment and family stability. For example, some of our clients have come to us virtually homeless, become naturalized U.S. citizens, and then gone on to start successful businesses. Learning English is also crucial for a newly arrived immigrant or refugee to become independent and self-sufficient. Our educational programs not only help these newest Charlotte residents learn English but also assist them with basic life skills and how to navigate the city’s systems and services.

The second way that International House “welcomes the world” is through our focus on building international understanding.  We strive to promote Charlotte as a global city and celebrate the increasingly international aspect of this evolving, dynamic community. Our cultural and international visitor programs introduce native Charlotteans to high level professional and student leaders from around the world. And, we offer great opportunities to learn about other languages and cultures through language conversation hours, international book groups, and Doorways, a social group for international women.

The elevator has arrived at the bottom floor.  Most of the time, the curious stranger smiles and tells me that International House sounds like an amazing organization. We often exchange business cards, and sometimes there are interesting conversations and partnerships that emerge later. Telling International House’s story is something I am always happy to do.  Perhaps you can help us spread the word, too!

International House to Join New Charlotte Task Force


As a leading organization in the Charlotte international community, International House has been invited to participate in the City of Charlotte’s newly created Immigrant Integration Task Force.  Created by City Council resolution in November, the Task Force is intended to be an inter-agency effort that will evaluate and recommend ways to maximize immigrants’ economic and civic contributions to Charlotte.

We are very pleased to be included in this initiative along with other community stakeholders who are representative of the diversity of people living and working in the Queen City.  The Task Force will soon begin a research and discovery process that will be used to craft recommendations for creating City services and partnerships that will help immigrants better integrate into the community.  The Task Force will also make recommendations regarding the creation of opportunities for economic and civic contributions of immigrants.

Jennifer Watson Roberts, President of International House’s Board of Directors, will be our official representative to the Task Force.  We applaud the members of the City Council, former Mayor Patsy Kinsey, and Mayor Patrick Cannon for their leadership in creating this Task Force and recognizing the need for new momentum in discerning  the role that the City can play in providing a framework for Charlotte’s immigrant populations to help expand our local economy and enrich civic life.

Here at International House, we have seen first-hand the many contributions that Charlotte’s newest citizens are making to our community.  Charlotte’s foreign-born population has increased dramatically from 23,000 in 1990 to over 173,000 residents in 2011. This means that immigrants of all skill levels are active participants in Charlotte’s economy.  It also means that finding ways to assist immigrants in better integrating into Charlotte’s neighborhoods, education system, industries and businesses benefits everyone.  We are proud to contribute to this new initiative that will help Charlotte continue to be a globally competitive city with a colorful mix of neighbors building a healthy community for all!