By Kayla Crowder
In a small room outfitted with a projector and a clear marker board are rows of chairs and tables. On a Wednesday morning in February, five refugees and immigrants sat in those chairs while instructor Becky Bailey took them through the day’s lesson, which happened to be on the U.S. Bill of Rights.
“Who came here for freedom of religion?” Bailey asked.
Bailey received a few different answers before giving them the right one:
“Colonists came for freedom of religion,” she said, before moving onto a vocabulary review that included words like gambling and phrases like giving false testimony, all things refugees and immigrants need to understand before taking their citizenship test and going to the required interview.
Imagine how hard it would be to move to a country not knowing the language and then trying to earn your citizenship.
It wouldn’t be easy.
That’s why the Center for People in Need in Lincoln, Nebraska—where Bailey teaches—offers a citizenship class among its many other resources.
Many who take the class say it’s a valuable resource and they are happy it exists.
“You don’t have to pay,” said one of the students. “It’s wonderful.”
Just last fall the Center received a competitive and renewable two-year grant to fund citizenship classes for immigrants and refugees.
“We had been offering classes before, but they were sporadic and were based on when volunteers were available,” said Sue Saxton, a coordinator at the Center.
The Center offers two class levels: one for refugees and immigrants who are more advanced in reading, writing and speaking English and another for those who are less fluent in English. Both classes meet twice a week: the basic course on Monday and Tuesday and the advanced class on Wednesday and Friday.
Bailey, the sole class instructor, said she meets with the class applicants and tests them to place them in the correct session: The advanced class meets for eight weeks, and the beginning class meets for 10.
Students, no matter which section they’re in, should be prepared for the exam and interview once they’ve completed their sessions, Saxton said.
Iraqi refugee Saad Al Hasan is currently in the advanced class.
Hasan came to the U.S. with his family “five years and one month ago” and has been in Nebraska since 2011. They left Iraq because some people there didn’t like the fact that he worked with the United States military.
As for many, becoming a citizen is very important for Hasan, and coming to the Center for People in Need’s citizenship class is a step in the right direction.
Not that it’s easy. Hasan’s night shift at Sam’s Club ends at 7 a.m. Instead of going home to sleep, he heads for the citizenship class.
“This time is not good for me, but I need to come,” Hasan said. “I live here—I need to go to work, to vote like anybody here. Like any of my neighbors, my friends.”
Saxton said that to become a citizen, applicants must first devote about an hour and a half to filling out a 21-page application called an N-400—with which the Center helps them. Then applicants have to have their fingerprints taken and processed in Omaha. Finally the applicants are sent their tests and given times and dates for their interviews.
“I think it’s easy, but we’re nervous,” Hasan said about him and his wife taking the citizenship exam.
Hasan feels pressure to do well, especially with the interview. But he figures that the people conducting the interviews probably know the applicants are nervous.
For Peter Gam, a refugee from Sudan, becoming a citizen is more than just passing a test.
“It’s good to know the story of where you are living,” Gam said. “There are good laws here—no fighting.”
Both Hasan and Gam said that they appreciate the services offered by the Center.
“Very good people—all they do here is about us,” Gam said. “That’s what I love about all of this—I appreciate that they do this.”
Bailey based her curriculum on the kinds of question the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services is likely to ask during the interview. She focuses on literacy so her students understand the questions they will be asked and then be able to answer correctly.
Bailey said that during the interview the interviewer can ask anything on the N-400 application the immigrant or refugee had to submit prior to the exam.
“If they answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’ wrong, it could be the difference between getting their citizenship and being rejected,” Bailey said. “There are so many rules.”
Bailey said she knew a Sudanese woman whose interview was stopped because she answered “yes” to the question, “Have you ever claimed to be a U.S. citizen?” when on her application she said “no.” She was then taken to an immigration judge, where she was told she had to wait for a certain period of time before reapplying.
Bailey said that she can’t imagine what it must feel like going through a citizenship interview, but she hopes she gives her students enough information to help them know what to expect.
“I, as well as many who work here—we value our work, and want to help people—to help people live in the best country in the world.”