On my first day of school in the United States, I put on my school uniform and my new backpack, and walked to St. Thomas Aquinas in Philadelphia with my mom to meet my eighth-grade teacher. That was Sept. 11, 2001. The school day didn’t last long.
Shortly after I arrived, everyone was dismissed. I spent the rest of the day in front of the television watching replays of the planes slamming into the World Trade Center and the ash-covered survivors. When I heard President Bush say, “You’re either with us or against us,” I knew where I stood.
I was 12 years old and I had just come to the United States from Indonesia with my mom, a single parent, and my younger brother. My world was cartoons and video games where the good guys fight the bad guys — but this evil was real. I was grateful to America for the opportunity it offered us, and I felt so scared, so powerless, and so sad about the devastation in my new home. I hoped that one day I would be able to join the military to protect the United States.
Today, thanks to Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) – a program that allows undocumented young people who came to the country as children to receive a temporary work permit and permission to stay – I’m a reservist cargo specialist in the U.S. Army, and I also work as a restaurant chef.
But President Trump’s termination of the DACA program could destroy the life I’ve struggled so hard to build. If Congress doesn’t act now to find a solution for Dreamers, I will lose my right to work and serve my country, and I could even be deported. And I’m one of more than a thousand people with DACA in the same position, who are already serving in the military or who have signed contracts and are awaiting basic training.
This week is particularly important — we hope Congress will include provisions for Dreamers in the spending bill. Our Pennsylvania members of Congress can use their power to protect us.
It has been a hard road to realize my childhood dream of serving my country. In my junior year at South Philadelphia High School, military recruiters came to a job fair and set up tables in our school library. I went straight over and said I wanted to join. But I couldn’t enlist without a Social Security number.
After graduating from high school, I worked restaurant jobs and quickly learned that even if you grow up here, life without documents in the United States is a partial life. You pay taxes and follow the rules, but you may not be able to drive, go to college, or work in a profession. It’s as if you’re in a house, you’re paying rent, but you can’t use the hot water to shower or cook with the oven.
Then, in 2012, the DACA program was created. Suddenly, everything changed. I could get a driver’s license, apply for college, and work. In 2014, the military opened the door to people with DACA, and several years later, I enlisted. I have been living my dream.
But since September, when President Trump ended DACA, I worry about my future every day.
Back when I enlisted, a recruiter told me to memorize “A Soldier’s Creed,” a set of guiding statements for soldiers. I keep a copy of the creed in my wallet and another taped to the wall beside my bed, so it’s the last thing I look at before I go to sleep.
The Soldier’s Creed says: “I will always place the mission first.”
My personal mission is to serve this country in the military. That comes before all else.
“I will never quit.”
I will never stop trying to earn my place in the Army — or defending my rights as a Dreamer who grew up in this country and is prepared to give everything to it.
“I will never leave a fallen comrade.”
These days, I think about this one a lot. I hope and believe our leaders are committed to it too. I believe and hope the American leadership will not abandon people like me. I still believe our leaders will step up and create a way for people with DACA to keep contributing to the United States.
I would like to tell our Pennsylvania members of Congress: We were not born in this country, but we grew up here and we’re fighting to earn our place. Please give us our chance to serve the only country we consider home. Please find a way to allow us to work and stay right here where we belong.
Zion Dirgantara grew up in Philadelphia. He is a reservist cargo specialist in the U.S. Army, a restaurant chef, and a DACA recipient.