Two Afghan brothers arrived at the federal courthouse in Alexandria yesterday, and their identical paths in America suddenly diverged.
As Satar Reangber stood and raised his right hand to become a U.S. citizen, his younger brother, Salam, watched from the second-to-last row, using his own right hand to cradle his infant niece.
Neither brother could hear the oath of naturalization or read the certificates of citizenship and Pledge of Allegiance distributed to the immigrants and their families. But they understood clearly that one of them had been left behind after their tandem six-year struggle to become Americans.
Satar emerged from the ceremony with his certificate, a small U.S. flag, a copy of the Declaration of Independence and a relieved grin. Bearing his prizes, he headed directly for Salam, embracing and kissing him three times on the cheek -- right, left, right, a Middle Eastern and Afghan custom -- and Salam clapped his hands.
"He's happy for his brother but not happy for himself," younger sister Najia Hayat said, translating the look on Salam's face.
For most of their lives, the Reangber brothers have shared a silent world filled with hand gestures, glances and grunts that only they and a few close relatives and friends understand.
They were born deaf -- Satar in 1961, Salam in 1964 -- in Kabul. Never learning to read or write in their native Dari, and speaking it with difficulty, they relied on lip-reading and toiled as tailors, outfitting the city's wealthy in suits and silks. During the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, most of the Reangbers came to Alexandria with refugee status -- the parents in 1985 and six of seven siblings in 1986.
The English that the deaf brothers saw forming on speakers' lips seemed impossible to read, its block letters too hard to learn this late in life, Hayat said. She enrolled them in sign language courses, but they quit after a few lessons, indicating that the other students always knew more. They found jobs altering suits at Britches of Georgetown and worked there until 2000.
In 1998, their sister helped them apply for citizenship and cited their disability in asking for an exemption to the interview and written test needed to qualify. In the next six years, Satar was called in for fingerprinting and then was told that his application had been lost, while Salam was interviewed, denied citizenship and told that deaf people don't qualify for disability waivers.
Satar appealed, and his case was reviewed in November and approved, leading to his participation in yesterday's ceremony. Salam's appeal is in progress.
Officials with the Citizenship and Immigration Services at the Department of Homeland Security did not return repeated calls for comment.
The differing treatment of the brothers' identical cases underscores the capriciousness of the agency's judgments, especially those involving disabled applicants, said Laura Burdick, deputy director of the Washington-based Catholic Legal Immigration Network. Burdick met Hayat at a citizenship workshop last year and was compelled by her rendering of the brothers' tale. She helped the family reapply for Satar's citizenship and appeal the decision against Salam.
"It's worrisome," Burdick said yesterday, after helping guide Satar through the line and explaining his situation to court officials. "Disabled people are supposed to have a waiver. In Salam and Satar's case, they don't know sign language. . . . These guys have been waiting six years. I understand that they are backlogged, but priority should be given to people who have been waiting the longest."
At yesterday's ceremony, all 65 naturalized citizens were asked to stand and state their country of origin. When officials were told about Salam's difficulties, they did not know what he should do. Finally, a man seated next to Satar was asked to tap him when it was time to stand, and Hayat, seated in the nearby jury box, was asked to say "Afghanistan" when Satar's name was called.
Now that he is a citizen, Satar plans to sponsor his fiancee, an Afghan woman who lives in Pakistan, to immigrate to the United States. He has not seen her since 1997, on his last visit to Pakistan, when the engagement was arranged by the couple's families.
Only U.S. citizens can sponsor a fiancee's immigration, which is partly why Satar was in such a hurry to get his citizenship, Burdick said.
Besides being able to marry, Hayat said, her brothers wanted their citizenship because they have feared traveling on Afghan passports since Sept. 11, 2001, and because they believe it will be easier to get jobs as U.S. citizens. Salam, 39, works as a steamer in Nordstrom's alterations department, while Satar, 43, works at Hayat's business, a flooring company in Lorton.
The brothers, who live with their now-widowed mother in Alexandria, have driver's licenses, but they have been warned to follow only routes they know. Once, Salam got lost on the way to Baltimore and had to give Hayat's telephone number to a police officer so she could pick him up.
One evening this week, as Satar's shift at the flooring company ended, a close family friend, Naqib Hatami of Springfield, teased that his future wife will run away when she sees Satar's now balding head. Hatami said he can understand Satar's Dari and gestures because he spends a lot of time with him.
"No, my hair's just like that," Satar replied as Hatami translated. "My heart is young."
In December, immigration authorities sent Burdick an e-mail saying they would take another look at Salam's case, but she has heard nothing since.
Hayat said the family is still looking for a bride for Salam. But she might hold off on the matchmaking, she said, because she doesn't want to make another woman wait seven years.