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'A huge weight has been lifted off me.' Page High’s Elizabeth Rahlan gets her green card and diploma.

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Elizabeth Rahlan's refugee-camp adoption complicated her immigration status and put her in jeopardy of deportation, but in May, she received her green card, and in June, she got her high school diploma from Page High School in Greensboro.

Elizabeth Rahlan will graduate Tuesday from Page High with her green card close.

It’s in her wallet.

She doesn’t look at it too much because she says the card has what she calls a “really ugly picture” of her. Still, she knows the green card she received a few weeks ago will help her get a job, get a driver’s license and do what she has always hoped to do.

Go to college.

Rahlan hopes to attend GTCC this fall. She wants to save her money, transfer and go after another dream – to become a dentist.

“Once I become a dentist,” she tells her friends, “I want to show you my moves.”

And she does have some moves. She used hair bands to straighten her teeth.

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Elizabeth Rahlan’s refugee-camp adoption complicated her immigration status and put her in jeopardy of deportation, but in May, she received her green card, and in June, she got her high school diploma from Page High School in Greensboro.

That’s right, hair bands.

Her family couldn’t afford braces, and Rahlan hated her crooked teeth. So, when she was 7, she watched videos and got the idea of using hair bands. She bought packs of 100 hair bands for $1.80 at local beauty supply shops and slipped them onto her teeth.

Every night for seven years, she slept with hair bands attached to her teeth. Her idea worked. By the time she turned 14, her teeth were straight.

“I have motivation,” Rahlan says about becoming a dentist. “People keep telling me I have great teeth, and from the country where I came from, they don’t have great teeth. Brushing your teeth is not a thing.

“Refugees really don’t have time to brush their teeth because they’re scared the whole time,” she says. “So, that’s been my motivation. I love teeth. I brush my teeth 24/7 to give me the smile that when I look in the mirror, I say, ‘Oh yeah.’

“You have to take care of your own, baby.”

She has.

And with her new permanent green card — the permit from the federal government that allows a foreign national to live and work permanently in the United States — she can take care of her family and her future.

Her permanent green card has been a long time coming. It’s been 15 years, Rahlan says.

But that’s only part of her journey. Start with when she was born.

Rahlan (copy)

Elizabeth Rahlan holds a photo of her parents, Thuy Rahlan and Son Rochom, and herself as a baby. Rahlan-Kosr was brought to the U.S. with her family from Vietnam after George W. Bush’s administration gave sanctuary to the Montagnard family. Her refugee-camp adoption complicated her immigration status and put her in jeopardy of deportation.

As a newborn, she was left at a hospital near the refugee camp in Cambodia where Son Rochom and his wife Thuy Rahlan, a Montagnard couple, lived. A relative brought them baby Elizabeth. She was only a day old, and they fell for that little girl at first sight.

Rochom and Thuy Rahlan — as well as the rest of their extended family — named her Elizabeth after the revered woman in the Bible, and they adopted her with little paperwork. When they relocated to Greensboro, one of the largest resettlement areas of Montagnards in the United States, they brought Elizabeth with them. She was 5 months old.

Rahlan received a temporary green card 15 years ago and started a life typical of any Guilford County student.

From Irving Park Elementary.

To Swann Middle.

To finally Page High, where she played lacrosse for three years and went to every football and basketball game.

She was Pirate proud.

Rahlan had a collection of friends, and she enjoyed her teenage life. Then, one night, right before her 16th birthday, she came home late after hanging out with her friends. Her parents were waiting for her.

They sat her down and told her why she needed to be careful. For the first time, her parents told Rahlan her story. And for the first time, she saw her dad cry.

“They told me, ‘Your mom had abandoned you, and I am so sorry,’” Rahlan says today. “I started bawling. Having to hear that personally from people who had raised you for nearly 16 years of your life, it was like, ‘Wow.’”

Rochom and Thuy Rahlan adopted Elizabeth again 2009 in North Carolina. But in 2017, when Rochom applied for their daughter's permanent green card, immigration officials denied her application because the adoption order didn’t meet the government’s requirements.

The denial meant Rahlan was living in the country illegally and could be deported if she ever got caught.

That night when she came home late, her parents spelled out their fear to Rahlan in stark terms. Get stopped by police or do something wrong, they told her, and immigration officials could deport you to your home country with no help from anyone but yourself.

Rahlan’s teenage years suddenly turned upside down. She stayed home. She had to worry every time she went out – that is, if she went out at all. She stopped socializing, and Rahlan says some of her friends distanced themselves from her.

Meanwhile, she got a tattoo on the side of her right hand. It ran from her wrist all the way up to her pinkie. A local tattoo artist did it. Her tattoo was simply three words that said much about how she felt.

Trust No One.

“I only trust my family,” she says. “They stuck with me. And my friends, I wanted to ask them one thing, ‘Why are you afraid of me?’”

Her parents hired Jerry Chapman, a well-known immigration attorney in Greensboro, and he began working on her case. Yet, her parents had little to give Chapman other than their hope and support.

Her dad is disabled; her mom makes lace for gift bags at a local paper products company; and Rahlan, an only child, couldn’t work because she doesn’t have a green card. So, money was always tight in their household.

But Chapman had an idea. He suggested Rahlan start an account on the gofundme website to help raise money to pay the legal expenses to straighten out her adoption and green card difficulties.

She set the goal for $8,000. So far, the gofundme site has raised $9,925. That’s not the only good news Rahlan has received.

On May 14, she got a call from Chapman. He told her she had received her permanent green card.

“Are you serious?” she asked him.

He was.

She immediately called all her family members.

“Yo, I’m free!” she told them. “I’m really free!”

Four days later, she picked up her green card from Chapman’s office. She went with her dad. She slipped her green card in her wallet, alongside her bank card and a gift card from Starbucks. She could barely contain her excitement.

“‘Can we go get my license right now?” she asked her dad. “Can I go get a job right now?’”

She wanted to apply to every job in the world to help her family and help herself.

Once she got home, she immediately showed the green card to her mom.

“We’re good,” she told her. “We got it. Our stress is over.”

Rahlan saw her mom’s eyes just light up.

Now, Rahlan is a Page High graduate, and she wants to attend GTCC. But mostly, she’s ready to begin the rest of her life.

“I want to go to college and experience the dreams every college student has,” she says. “I want to be able to get a job and help my mom around the house. I want to make them proud and put them in a new house. Not just my parents, my whole family. I want to make sure they’re all good.

“I want to be the one to become successful because they weren’t able to have the education that I was able to have,” she says. “And it feels great. Before, I was really afraid about what the future would hold with no job and no college education.

“But now a huge weight has been lifted off me. I feel like an adult, and I can experience life like an actual 18 year old and not be afraid.”

All because of the card in her wallet.

Jeri Rowe, a former columnist at the News & Record, is the senior writer at High Point University. He interviewed Elizabeth Rahlan as part of a project for Guilford County Schools.

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