“It wasn’t until 11th grade when I started realizing what being undocumented meant and I honestly was just really discouraged going to school. I was like, well, I’m not even going to be able to go to college, you know? So why am I trying?”

Omar was a teenager when he saved nearly $2,000 to cover his Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, application and attorney fees.

He was in high school when Tennessee Immigrant & Refugee Rights Coalition (TIRRC), his now-employer, came to his hometown for a presentation about immigrant and refugee rights. That’s when he became interested in their work.

He says he struggled to be motivated in school and make good grades.

“I struggled to just find hope in my future.”

TIRRC told him about DACA and helped him begin his application. Even with the guidance from TIRRC, the process was difficult.

“I was in a single-parent household, so finances were always kinda tight and just not knowing what the process was like and finding an attorney that doesn’t want to charge you a huge amount. So, I would say that was a pretty big struggle.”

Together, he and his mom, who cleans apartments and businesses, were able to save enough for the application and attorney fees.

“The application is $495, but then on top of the attorney fees, I think I paid $1,400 the first time. And then to renew, I went through the same attorney until I found a Facebook group for DACA recipients where they share a lot of resources, and I was able to renew on my own the second to last time that I did it. And then this last time, I had some help from TIRRC.”

Omar was 18 years old working as a bus boy and getting paid in cash while he waited for his application to go through. He used his lunch break to call his attorney to ask for an update. That’s when he found out he had been approved.

“I’m just on my break crying because I was approved … to finally be able to work and have a license and do all these things that normal people do. It was very rewarding,” he says. “And I think DACA has definitely opened up some doors that otherwise wouldn’t have been there without the program and TIRRC.”

In December 2019, a manager at TIRRC messaged Omar saying there was a position available and that he should apply. He got the job. Now, as a program coordinator, Omar oversees TIRRC’s assistance line where people can call to get connected with services such as signing up for English classes or making a vaccine appointment.

“Another call that’s been very popular since the pandemic started is people needing rent or utility assistance. A lot of people are obviously out of work, whether they’re citizens or not. And a lot of our base clients are usually women. We have a lot of domestic workers that reach out to us—people that clean homes or take care of kids and older people. A lot of them have just lost employment and are also undocumented, so they don’t really have any other resources. They can’t apply for unemployment.”

He says at the start of COVID, they’d have 200 people calling at once just with help navigating the SNAP website. United Way selected TIRRC as a grant recipient for the COVID-19 Response Fund and Metro CARES funding. TIRRC was able to use that funding to help families pay rent, utilities and keep food on the table while they were out of work.

“We were helping people navigate the website and making accounts for them. And our attorney on staff kept advocating for more language access or just making that application process a lot easier for folks. I think just finding resources and knowing where to look has always been kind of difficult, especially for someone who doesn’t speak the language or who’s a newer arrival. And I think with the pandemic it’s even more difficult.”

He says the pandemic has taught him just how short life is.

“Just going for the things that we’re truly passionate about. I’m passionate about helping people especially when it comes to immigrant and refugee backgrounds, so just focusing more on that work and figuring out what the community needs are and helping people.”

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