VOICES FROM THE FIELDTHE IRC BLOG
Easing the path to citizenship
October 9, 2013 by The IRC
|Daniel Moise (center), from Haiti, with fellow students from a course offered by the IRC in New York and 15 other cities to help refugees and immigrants prepare for their citizenship test. Photo: Brian Harkin/IRC|
The International Rescue Committee helps refugees and immigrants from around the world fulfill their American dream.
By Steven Ambrus
On a late afternoon in August, nine slightly nervous men and women have gathered in an IRC conference room in New York to prepare for the last leg of their long journey to United States citizenship: the naturalization interview and civics test. They come from countries including Ecuador, Guinea, Burkina Faso, Russia and Uzbekistan and are apprehensive about their forthcoming trial. They have memorized everything about Martin Luther King’s "I Have a Dream" speech but struggle to pronounce the name Susan B. Anthony and are vague about her accomplishments as a women's activist. They all feel that if they pass the exam their lives will change.
"Back home, I sometimes had to sleep with one eye open," says Daniel Moise, an actor from Haiti, who endured persecution because of his acting company’s biting political commentary. “As a U.S. citizen, I know I can say what I want and still be safe."
Each year the IRC offers 10 to 12 week courses for hundreds of refugees and immigrants preparing for their citizenship test. Although the IRC’s core domestic mission is to assist refugees who have resettled in the U.S., the courses are open to all immigrants.
"The people we work with tell us they want to become citizens because they feel secure here, belong here and are proud to be here," says Paula Forero, director of the IRC's immigration program. "By making their path to citizenship easier, we are supporting their integration into the American fabric and helping to ensure they can fully protect their civil rights."
Buoyed by a $5 million grant from the Grove Foundation, the IRC has significantly expanded its citizenship programs in recent years. It offers immigration legal counseling in all of its 22 offices around the country and citizenship classes in 16 offices and has a greater capacity to help refugees and immigrants prepare for the often intimidating naturalization exam and obtain green cards and passports.
The IRC is also helping undocumented minors who qualify to stay in the country under a new federal policy that exempts some undocumented immigrants from deportation if they arrived in the U.S. as children. The IRC assists these children with immigration paperwork that allows them to obtain social security cards, driver licenses, and jobs and reaches out to families that might be unaware of the program.
Ali Salih, an easy-going, 27-year-old Iraqi recalls how the IRC helped him through the process. He fled Baghdad in 2008 for a Jordanian refugee camp after more than 20 of his relatives were kidnapped or killed. After being granted refugee status in the United States, he boarded a plane to New York. Unable to speak English, he enrolled in an IRC-organized language class. Earlier this year, he began to sit in on the citizenship classes. When it came time take the exam on Aug. 7, he knew he would ace it and did, easily rattling off the First Amendment rights and answering every other question without a single mistake. He currently works as a tour guide in New York and will soon start his own business as a tailor.
"I didn't have a voice before," Salih says. "Now I am an American. I have rights, am free, and can do whatever my mind calls me to do."
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