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Habiba Mberwa sits at a desk at the SBCA, where she has been attending citizenship classes for five months. Photo: Front and Center
Habiba Mberwa sits at a desk at the SBCA, where she has been attending citizenship classes for five months. Photo: Front and Center

For Syracuse refugee community, literacy an important step toward citizenship

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One of the first obstacles refugees face when trying to adjust to a new life in the United States is English; the language gap makes everyday life difficult. Many refugees can't even read or write in their first language and native illiteracy makes earning citizenship a very steep climb indeed. In our continuing collaboration on literacy and illiteracy with WBEZ Chicago's Front and Center project, Durrie Lawrence reports on how one refugee community in Syracuse prepares for one of the most important tests of their lives.

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After five years of permanent residency in the United States, resettled refugees can apply for citizenship. The process is long and involves basic literacy and oral civics exams, all in English. For refugees who did not have access to formal education in their host country, learning to read and write for the first time in a foreign language is especially difficult.

About 100 families make up the Somali-Bantu refugee community in Syracuse, New York. After escaping Somalia’s civil war, many lived in Kenyan refugee camps for more than 10 years before immigrating to the United States. Conditions in refugee camps contributed to high illiteracy rates among these people, making it even more difficult for them to start a new life in the U.S.

 Mumina Deqow was able to recall life in the camps without becoming visibly upset and spoke about past difficulties and hardships without losing her positive attitude. “I was born in 1991,” she said. “When the war started, everybody moved… I was two years old, on the back of my mom.” She could only read and write her name and country of origin when she arrived in Syracuse at the age of 14. There are few translators outside of the community for Maay Maay, her native language. Deqow entered the English Language Learners program through the Syracuse City School District. Like many Somali-Bantu students, she struggled.

Leaders in the Somali-Bantu community recognized that their children were having difficulties in school, and began a tutoring program in a private home. Demand for the program was so great that the group then decided to work with nonprofits and the school district to find a larger space. They expanded to offer afterschool programs and a Saturday session for more than 100 kids every week. In 2007, the group became officially known as the Somali-Bantu Community Association (SBCA). One of the founding members, Haji Adan, now acts as Literacy Program Director.

“When we lived in Somalia, we believed it takes a whole village to raise a child. If I don’t know what my neighbor is eating tonight, then I'm not a good neighbor,” Adan said. “That's who we are, and we didn't want to lose that culture.” Adan says that the center’s founders soon saw a need for adult refugees to get help adjusting to their new life as well. Most services through the Office of Refugee Resettlement are designed to last for only five years, and many members of the community were nearing their 5th year of residency in the US. After five years, adult refugees also have the opportunity to apply for U.S. citizenship. For those who are illiterate in their own language, the English literacy requirement can be a stretch.

The SBCA expanded their services to include adult literacy and English classes, as well as classes geared specifically to the citizenship test. The center offers translation services to assist new arrivals in filling out government paperwork, public assistance forms or citizenship applications. Adan says that a number of Somali-Bantu community centers offering tutoring and other support services have been established throughout the country. They have one significant characteristic: they are run by members of the refugee community.

23-year-old Lul Hassan works as an office assistant at the SBCA, and has taught citizenship classes there as well. She explained that, in addition to the basic literacy test, citizenship candidates must answer civics questions in an oral exam with a U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services officer. The questions can range from ‘How many amendments does the Constitution have?’ to ‘We elect a U.S. Representative for how many years?’ Hassan said, “First when you are starting the class it’s very difficult, they feel like they want to quit because the questions are very hard.”

The New Reader’s Press in Syracuse develops study materials for citizenship and naturalization candidates for national distribution. Terrie Lipke is the senior editor, and she says that these questions can be difficult for those unfamiliar with U.S. political norms. She said, “Probably the hardest thing is to understand concepts behind the test, like the way U.S. government works. If you’re not literate in your native language, and you were never involved in government or politics in your native country, then how can you relate to how the Supreme Court works?” 

But Hassan says that even though studying for the test can be difficult, her students are dedicated. Citizenship means a great deal to refugees whose families have been separated. “It is different when you are a refugee and a citizen. For example, I’m a citizen. If I have a child living outside the US, I can apply a visa for my child, he can come, or a fiancé or husband away from me, or my own mother I can bring her to US,” she explained.

For Deqow, passing the citizenship exam in November wasn’t too difficult. After attending high school in Syracuse, her English skills improved dramatically. She says it only took her a couple months to study for the civics section.“Now I’ll be able to vote, and to see everything,” she smiled. She says it’s easier to travel internationally as a fully naturalized citizen. Standing next to her husband at a ceremony on a sunny April day in Syracuse, Deqow took the oath to officially become a citizen. Their two children, Ikran and Asahal, waved tiny American flags as they climbed over the courtroom benches. About 15 other members of the Somali-Bantu refugee community also became citizens that day.

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