Inspired to citizenship: Department of Ecology engineer becomes an American

Farida Farajullayeva Leek says governor’s email to state employees last year was her motivation

The Chinese philosopher Laozi said: “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”

Farida Farajullayeva Leek’s journey has taken her tens of thousands of miles. And in April, the Washington State Department of Ecology engineer took the step to become an American citizen. Now a whole new journey begins.

Though she’s been in the United States for nearly 18 years, it was Gov. Jay Inslee’s message to employees on Feb. 6, 2017, that moved her toward citizenship.

Farida Farajullayeva Leek

Inslee’s email to all state employees provided information and resources for immigrants in the wake of the Trump administration’s travel ban.

“Your jobs are often difficult enough without adding unnecessary uncertainty about the ability of your loved ones to travel abroad and safely return home,” Inslee wrote. “I will continue to do all I can to fight any and all discriminatory measures that cause harm to Washington’s families and businesses.”

She came home from work that day and told her husband, Randal Leek, that she was going to prepare her documents for citizenship. He later joked about it, saying he couldn’t get her to do it for 20 years, and the governor did it in two minutes.

“I cannot express enough how the governor’s deep, touching, caring email was important to me,” said Farida, who at the time was a documented immigrant. “Even now when I read it, I get emotional.”

Where it began

Farida was born in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, a country at the crossroads of Eastern Europe and Western Asia with a population of 9.9 million. The country was incorporated into the Soviet Union in 1920 and proclaimed its independence in 1991, prior to the official dissolution of the Soviet Union.

She has three graduate degrees from three different countries: Azerbaijan, Ukraine and the United States, achieved in three different languages: Azeri, Russian and English.

Baku is where she met future husband Randal. He was an American working for humanitarian agencies helping refugees. In 1997, they married and relocated to Albania in response to the needs of Kosovo refugees living there. Farida took jobs developing water supply projects in local villages and provided advice in support of water and sanitation programs.

“I didn’t know English well, and we hardly knew each other when we were married,” she said. But Albania was a great place for them to begin their life together. In a new country, they went to the market and sampled everything. They learned a new language and used it to talk about their adventures.

“When I would go out in the field to the villages, riding on horseback to get into the mountains, it was much like some of Randal’s first experiences in the Peace Corps — seeing and meeting villagers living away from modern civilization,” she said.

American sojourn

After leaving “colorful Albania,” Farida and Randal moved to the United States, which she said seemed “dark and heavy, fast moving and uncertain” at first. She finished school at Washington State University, earning a Master of Science degree in biological systems engineering. The Palouse Basin Aquifer Committee funded her study as part of a groundwater management plan for the Palouse Basin.

Guy Gregory, who recently retired as a technical supervisor for the water resources program at Ecology’s Eastern Regional Office, was a part of the PBAC working group. He invited Farida to give a presentation about her research on the Palouse Basin basalt aquifer system at the Spokane office.

“I met a group of Ecology people for the first time,” Farida said. “Shortly after that meeting, Ecology was on the top of my future job list.”

In the summer of 2006, her husband had a job interview in downtown Yakima just blocks from Ecology’s Central Regional Office.

“Strolling downtown Yakima in hot weather, I ended up at the old (Central Regional Office) building,” Farida said. “I didn’t know that Ecology had the office in Yakima.”

Her husband got the job and they bought their first home on Yakima’s west side. Two months later she applied for a job with the Columbia River Unit, which was just forming to develop water supplies for both instream and out-of-stream benefits in Eastern Washington. It’s now called the Office of Columbia River.

Farida Farajullayeva Leek and her husband, Randal Leek, visit Multnomah Falls in Oregon. (Courtesy of the Washington State Department of Ecology)

Farida been working at Ecology for 11 years. She lends technical assistance to Office of Columbia River on the Supply and Demand Forecast Report to the Legislature, is involved in issuing new water right permits from Lake Roosevelt and Sullivan Lake, and analyzing long-term streamflow data for Columbia River Basin watersheds.

Path to citizenship

Three years ago, Randal brought Farida a brochure from the U.S. Embassy in Afghanistan when he worked there for the U.S. Agency for International Development.

“The ‘Learn about the United States’ brochure was my study material to begin,” Farida said. “It helped me to understand the principles of American democracy, the U.S. system of government and the important rights and responsibilities of citizens.”

Once inspired by Inslee’s email, she started the process of getting personal documents from Azerbaijan and applied for naturalization. For her it went rather quickly. On April 24, she became an American citizen.

Farida Farajullayeva Leek, an engineer with the Washington State Department of Ecology, poses with her citizenship certificate in April. She was born in Azerbaijan. (Courtesy of the Washington State Department of Ecology)

Studying for the civics test — being knowledgeable about her new country — was exciting for her.

“I have been in Washington, D.C., three times, visited the Washington Monument, Lincoln Memorial, White House and Smithsonian museum,” she said. “I felt the power everywhere that I haven’t felt in any other countries I visited. Study materials took me back to my great memories about my visit to the capital.”

One of the things that surprised her the most while studying to become a citizen was that after 231 years, there are only 27 amendments to the Constitution. And that up until 1971, voters had to be at least 21.

She said that new citizens both love their new country — and the traditions, religion and customs from their homelands.

“We need to accept people as they are,” she said. “And treat them equally, with respect and dignity.”

As a new citizen, she said she looks forward to being able to vote this year and to travel more easily.

“Next summer I am planning to travel to New York, to visit the Statue of Liberty, climb the stairs to the crown and … scream: ‘Why Not Me?!’” she said. “I am a happy and proud new American. I am thankful to this country for giving me this opportunity… and for Ecology and the Central Office for being such a great home for me.”

The governor’s February 2017 email in its entirety:

Fellow state employees,

As you know, this past week has been a tumultuous one for hundreds of Washington workers, employers and families who experienced difficulties resulting from an executive order issued by President Trump that restricts — and in some cases, bans — travel by immigrants and refugees from certain countries.

We received excellent news last Friday when a federal judge in Seattle issued a temporary restraining order that suspends implementation of the president’s executive order. This was in response to a lawsuit filed by Attorney General Bob Ferguson on behalf of Washington state. Attorney General Ferguson, Solicitor General Noah Purcell and their entire team have been working tirelessly to make sure this unconstitutional action by the president does not stand. My staff and I are all intently focused on how we can best help affected communities.

Regardless of your politics, the reality is that this executive order, and some of the other actions being issued by President Trump, impact hard-working, law-abiding residents of our state and our nation. These are UW students studying HIV vaccines, parents waiting to be reunited with their children, and employees of our state’s world-class businesses.

My office has been fielding questions and hearing from many of you and others who are concerned about what the president’s actions mean for them and their family. If you, a colleague, family member or neighbor have questions or need assistance, please use the link to this resource page we’ve compiled. Numerous organizations are ready to provide information, advice and possibly even legal assistance. We will keep this page updated to make sure it remains a valuable resource.

In addition, if you have any human resources related questions about how this executive order may affect employment with the state, please reach out to your agency’s human resources office.

Your jobs are often difficult enough without adding unnecessary uncertainty about the ability of your loved ones to travel abroad and safely return home. I will continue to do all I can to fight any and all discriminatory measures that cause harm to Washington’s families and businesses.

As always, thank you for all you do. It is an honor to serve you and the people of our great state.

Very truly yours,

Jay Inslee