Cuban-born Roberto Pérez is on a mission to fight illiteracy, a campaign that has helped seven million people and which the U.S. government will recognize Thursday with the country's second-highest decoration awarded to civilians.

When Pérez arrived in the United States from Cuba, at 17, he experienced firsthand how difficult it was to get by without knowing how to read and write English. He was deceived for a long time into accepting lower wages and when he injured a finger in a factory he was afraid that he would not be able to work again.

Since then, he has dedicated his life to learning and teaching, first educating himself and then helping to eradicate illiteracy as the president of Alfalit International, a non-profit organization that has helped more than seven million people "come out of the shadows" of ignorance.

"For a person who doesn't know how to read or write it's as if he's blind. Many people are in the shadows for that reason and our objective is to change ... their lives (so that) they aren't mistreated because they're considered to be ignorant," the 68-year-old retired Methodist pastor told Efe.

His work of more than four decades will be recognized Thursday by President Barack Obama, who will present him with the Citizens Medal.

Pérez, who will receive the distinction along with 12 other people, hopes that being honored in this way will encourage Hispanics to "sacrifice and work hard to open up a path in life."

The advice comes from someone who managed to overcome the language barrier, who has two master's degrees, one in theology and the other in counseling, and who earlier was forced to work cleaning floors, as a waiter and a factory laborer.

"I came to this country without knowing how to read or write English. ... When I arrived alone, in 1961, I saw the signs in English and didn't know what they said," he remarked.

Pérez arrived in Miami and later traveled to New York.

After spending a few months in that city he moved to Baltimore with a cousin, where an African American man helped him to study English. He managed to graduate from high school but he couldn't register for college at that time due to lack of money.

Then he was drafted into the U.S. Army and served in Vietnam and upon returning he decided to become a Methodist pastor.

He began working as a volunteer for Miami-based Alfalit Miami, and in 1968 he was invited by the founders of that organization to a seminar in the Dominican Republic where he helped a young man learn to read and write who went on to hold an important position in his country's government.

"I taught him and I saw a way to serve as a Christian," Pérez said.

When the founders of the organization passed away, he was named president of the board of directors and began programs in Argentina, Brazil, Venezuela, Paraguay, Angola, Mozambique, Liberia and Uganda, among other countries. 

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