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Classes lead Mankato refugees, immigrants to citizenship

MANKATO, Minn. (AP) – Nyawargak Jack said she cried tears of happiness the first time she returned to Lincoln Community Center after passing her test to become an American citizen.

Jack, a refugee from Sudan, passed the test two weeks ago after about a year of classes in the community center’s adult basic education program, the Mankato Free Press (http://bit.ly/2mmghDr ) reported. The program includes citizenship classes, and Jack wanted to first thank longtime instructor Tom Tacheny.

“When I came back to tell him thank you, I cried,” she said. “I cried because all the time when you ask him questions he listens to you and tells us what we need to do.”

To say the road to citizenship is a difficult process would be an understatement. The community center is one place immigrants and refugees such as Jack can turn to for help along the path.

Citizenship classes at the center and elsewhere in Mankato have had slightly higher enrollments this year, an occurrence that roughly coincides with the initial travel ban implemented by President Donald Trump in January.

Karen Wolters, program coordinator of Lincoln’s adult basic education program, said the 20 percent bump in citizenship, math and English class enrollment this year may have to do with fear arisen by talk of the ban. Much of the student population at the center are either immigrants or refugees, many from Somalia. Citizenship for them could mean they can travel home to visit family without worrying about not being able to return.

“This year there is some fear right now and people are wanting to get (citizenship) done as soon as they possibly can,” Wolters said.

Although timed with the travel ban, the enrollment bump also may be part of a larger trend of steady or even slight increases in recent years. More than 80 new English as a second language, or ESL, families moved into the school district this year, leading to wait lists of between 35 to 50 students for enrollment in adult basic education classes each quarter. The community center even added a full ESL section for the second and third quarters to help meet the need.

Wolters said the increased demand goes against what similar programs report elsewhere. The thinking goes that workforce training programs – which the classes basically are – decline in enrollment when the economy is good. That’s not what’s happening at Lincoln, a phenomenon Wolters suspects might have to do with how successful the program is. She touted the adult basic education program as consistently among the top programs for obtaining and retaining jobs in the state.

But citizenship class enrollment at Good Counsel’s Learning Center is also up since around the time the travel ban was enacted in January – the ban has since been struck down, along with the revised version. The program run by the School Sisters of Notre Dame is typically one-on-one tutoring. The citizenship portion has a modest seven students now, enough for director Dorothy Zeller to create a class for the first time. Four students make up the class – in comparison, Lincoln typically has classes of between 15 to 19 students. The rest of the learning center’s citizenship tutoring is still offered one on one.

Zeller said the class came together as one person after another came in wanting to learn about citizenship.

“I think it was right after the ban,” she said of the timing. “If I posted and actually advertised the citizenship in the evenings, it’d probably get quite a few more.”

The citizenship classes make up a small percentage of the 60 total students at the learning center. It’s possible the center could take in more students in the future, Zeller said, but it would require more teachers.

Paging through the citizenship booklet that citizenship students receive, Zeller said the courses aren’t just about helping the students memorize facts. The students may have to know which sides fought in the Civil War, but learning the context of why the Union and Confederacy fought is just as important.

Memorization is part of the eventual test the students will take, though, along with writing and speaking portions. Students might have to know anything from who our first president was, the year we declared our independence, or which oceans border our country. They’ll also have to write out answers and tackle questions about themselves. To prepare, many students at Good Counsel and Lincoln Community Center are taking English classes at the same time as citizenship courses.

There are also many, agonizingly long steps between finishing the citizenship classes and actually becoming a citizen. Tacheny, the instructor at Lincoln Community Center, knows the process well.

First, he said, a refugee must establish residency here for five years – three if you’re married to a citizen. Once you reach that point, you’re free to take the citizenship test. Easy, right? Not if you aren’t proficient enough in English.

There are forms, and lots of them, to fill out. This helps explain why a refugee would seek out a citizenship or English class first rather than go it alone.

Plus, once they’re in the citizenship classes, they can be referred to nonprofits like the Minnesota Council of Churches, the secondary refugee resettlement agency for the Mankato area. Staff there help people fill out those complicated citizenship applications. Other resources in town, including the newly established Oasis Immigration Services in Mankato, provide similar services.

The process isn’t over once the application is sent. Next, the hopeful applicant waits.

Tacheny said his students report three- to six-month wait times just to get in to provide a fingerprint. The print is needed so the government can run a background check. Then, more waiting.

If everything checks out, they’ll finally get a call to schedule their citizenship test. The price? It costs $ 680 – which, to be fair, is reduced if the applicant is on government assistance.

Jack is one of about 15 students at Lincoln Community Center who gain citizenship in a given year, all going through this same process with slight variations. All are recognized in a spring graduation and citizenship ceremony at the community center.

Recent graduates, Jack included, say it means a lot to come out of the test knowing you’ll become an American after all the time invested in the process.

Khadar Ismail, an American living in St. Peter, came here from Somalia in 2010. He spent two years taking classes at Lincoln Community Center before passing his citizenship test last year. He continues to take classes in pursuit of his high school diploma. He still remembers how daunting the path to citizenship seemed before he took the classes.

“People think it’s difficult at first,” he said. “By the time they go to the test, it becomes easy.”

Another American born in Somalia, Deko Ibrahim, attended her state citizenship ceremony in February after passing the test last October. She said she’s excited to be a part of her new country with her husband and children, and hopes her citizenship enables the rest of their family to join them here.

“I want to be a part of America,” she said. “I’d like to bring my family here.”

Wolters often hears this sentiment among the students in the citizenship classes. If more people came and saw the work they’re putting in, she said, the negative perceptions of refugees and immigrants might change.

“I see people working their tails off trying to get ahead and trying to be part of the community,” she said.

Tacheny said the students’ willingness to learn is what keeps him motivated to help them.

“It’s fun to help the people,” he said. “Most of the immigrants and refugees are great people and really appreciate the help.”

They show their appreciation, too. Jack didn’t just bring tears when she returned to the Lincoln Community Center after passing her test. She brought food for the staff, a show of appreciation for helping her become an American.

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Information from: The Free Press, http://www.mankatofreepress.com

Copyright © 2017 The Washington Times, LLC.

Source: www.washingtontimes.com stories: Politics

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