In 2010, after 12 years of living in a refugee camp on the Thai/Burmese border, the Soe family came to the US through refugee resettlement and made Ithaca their new home. Only 6 years later, each and every member of the Soe family is now a US citizen. The combination of a strong desire to be successful and tackle the English and other requirements needed to get on the path to citizenship, as well as accessing a lot of support from the community, made this all possible.
This joint effort included the parents getting English instruction from BOCES ESL program and citizenship prep tutoring from Tompkins Learning Partners. Once they were eligible to apply for citizenship (there is a minimum 5 year wait) and had acquired enough English to demonstrate they were proficient in English, we played our part by preparing and filing the parents’ citizenship applications and eventually individual applications for each son to receive his own citizenship certificate. Did I mention there were 5 of them?! Family and friends also pitched in by accompanying them to scheduled appointments at Catholic Charities and with the immigration office in Syracuse, as well as cheering them on at their swearing-in ceremony.
The picture above of this beautiful family reflects the culmination of these combined efforts and reflects the strong desire refugees have to be successful in integrating their lives into the United States. I just want to congratulation and acknowledge the Soes and say how gratifying it was to play a part in their entire family becoming US citizens.
Mitra and Mojgan, two sisters who immigrated to the US from Iran, recently became US citizens. Mitra naturalized first in a ceremony at Cortland’s Supreme Courthouse, while her younger sister Mojgan, naturalized this May at Tompkins County’s ceremony. I met both of them when they were newcomers to Ithaca over five years ago and have seen the great lengths they both have gone through in order to ensure their families will succeed in the US. Their path to citizenship started many years ago when their brother filed a relative petition to bring both sisters and their families to the US.
When the petitions became current, Mitra and Mojgan’s brother contacted them back home in Tehran and said they needed to get ready to go through consular processing. Mojgan described how she first thought this was a joke and then how it quickly turned into a dream. “When he called and said everything was ready and said to go to the Turkish embassy I was very confused because everything moved so fast. At first I was afraid, they told me my husband couldn’t come at the same time. But he told me to go. Mitra also told me to go and get settled and she would follow with her family. So my children and I left first, and then my husband followed one and a half months later.
“Before Mitra left, she called often and asked ‘how is the US, how is it over there?’ I told her, ‘you have to come here and see for yourself.’ It was hard before Mitra came. I missed her very much because we talked to each other every day back home. It was difficult to call to my country because we didn’t have a cell phone.” Their separation was relatively brief though; Mitra and her family came after 8 months. “When she came here I could talk with her and make better decisions about everything. I was so happy to have her living by me. I felt so alone before then.”
So at the ages of 43 (Mojgan) and 51 (Mitra), the sisters resumed providing mutual support on a daily basis as they began living as neighbors in an apartment complex just north of Ithaca. Prior to coming to the US, they saw each other often and had traditional roles as homemakers as they spent most of their times caring for their families and their households. According to Mojgan, both of their husbands had gainful employment so they never worked outside of the home. “We took our children to school, made things right in our home, cooked, cleaned, and also took care of our parents, who were older.” But things were different in the US. Their husbands could no longer support their families on their salaries alone so they both sought full-time employment; Mitra took up babysitting and Mojgan currently works at a local bakery. “We have a hard life here but one of the reasons we can stay here and can continue our life is because we live close to each other and support each other. “
This past year Catholic Charities began providing citizenship services to Mojgan’s and Mitra’s entire family. By the end of the summer, all of the members of both families will be US citizens – either through naturalization or derivation. This is something Mojgan said has been their dream. She describes her sons, as well as Mitra’s sons, as embracing their lives here and really appreciating the opportunity they have in the US. For her, that was the number one reason she and Mitra decided to immigrate and then worked so hard to naturalize. “It has been my dream and Mitra’s dream to help our children become US citizens. Even though I miss Iran sometimes, my children are happy here. That makes me happy because I came here for them. “
This week I interviewed Tee Hla, a Karen refugee from Burma. Over the years, I have come to know Tee Hla in a few different areas of her life. I worked with her, her children and grandchildren in different jobs through my previous job at Challenge Workforce Solutions. On May 6th, 2015, I witnessed Tee Hla become sworn in as a U.S. citizen. I wanted to write a post about what a great accomplishment this was so invited her in to sit down for an interview. Her oldest son, Paw Pha, served as her interpreter.
Prior to becoming a U.S. citizen, Tee Hla spent ten years in a refugee camp in Thailand and then immigrated to the United States. She flew to the U.S. with 6 of her children and arrived in Syracuse in October, 2006. Paw Pha had arrived a few years earlier and helped his mother and his siblings settle in. Tee Hla is the mother of 16 children and 13 of them now reside in the U.S. She remembers feeling nervous and a little uncomfortable since it was such a big change from where she was living in Thailand.
With her citizenship, Tee Hla’s 14 year old daughter derives citizenship making all 13 of her children who are living in the United States citizens – something she is extremely proud of. Paw Pha mentioned that the Immigrant Service Program helped all of Tee Hla’s children become U.S. citizens. We celebrated with Tee Hla on her ceremony day.
ISP: Why did you want to become a citizen?
Tee Hla: I wanted to become a citizen because I know that retirement is important in the United States and Social Security is also important. My sisters live in Thailand and I would like to visit them. When I get my U.S. passport, I will be able to visit my sisters without any problems. Before becoming a citizen travel to Thailand was very difficult. I have four sisters in Thailand; 2 live in the refugee camp and two live outside of it. I have not been to visit them since 2009.
ISP: Did you apply for a U.S. passport?
Tee Hla: Yes, on May 6th, after my citizenship ceremony, Paw Pha and I went downstairs in the courthouse and filled out an application for a U.S. passport for me. I hope to travel to Thailand by the end of this year.
ISP: What did you have to do to become a citizen?
Tee Hla: I started to take classes at TLP (Tompkins Learning Partners) with my teacher, Evan. I studied with Evan for more than one year. I had a tutor/teacher also. My children helped me to study for the exam when I was at home. They asked me questions and I answered them. Every day, I listened to the CDs (CIVICs), practiced reading and writing and read the 100 questions book. Then I took the test two times, one time in Buffalo and once in Syracuse with Sue (Chaffee). I passed and I am so happy.
ISP: What was the hardest part of the test?
Tee Hla: The hardest part for me was memorizing and pronouncing people’s names and the 100 questions. “Have you ever…”, “Do you support…” I had to practice over and over again.
ISP: And was there an easy part?
Tee Hla: Easy part? (Laughter and shaking her head, no)
ISP: Since you had so much help getting your citizenship, are you helping anyone study now?
Tee Hla: Yes, I am helping my friend. I say to her, “Use the talking dictionary and the 100 questions CD.”
ISP: What do you remember from the citizenship test? (ISP Prompt)
Tee Hla: There are fifty stars for fifty states and 13 stripes for 13 colonies
ISP: Do you think you will vote for the U.S. president next year?
Tee Hla: Yes, I think I will vote.
As I mentioned above, I met Tee Hla in my previous job. We first met when she was working at Finger Lakes Fresh greenhouse, now closed, off of route 13 in Ithaca. She was the fastest lettuce packager on staff, wistfully singing traditional Karen songs or on occasion along with the pop songs on Lite Rock 97.3. Come to find out, at her church, Tee Hla and her children are known as the “Paw Family Singers” as they often sing traditional songs for their parish. I worked with Tee Hla and her coworker to improve their understanding of the daily activities at their job. We worked on vocabulary specific to the greenhouse and common phrases for her to use at work. Tee Hla quickly picked up the phrases and steadily worked on the vocabulary. She would often pick up an item and say the vocabulary word to confirm understanding.
During that time, I would drive the workers home from the greenhouse and in doing so, I engaged them in conversation. Knowing Tee Hla was studying for her citizenship, I would ask questions of her to practice for the speaking exam. This was the beginning of Tee Hla’s path to citizenship. It is a pleasure to have attended her celebration. Her whole family, sponsors, tutors and clergy members attended the huge party at her son’s home after the ceremony. Everybody talked about how proud they are of her accomplishments. Citizenship is the final step in Tee Hla creating her home here in the United States. She can now relax knowing she can enjoy her time with her children and grandchildren and will keep working until she retires. If you knew Tee Hla, you would know she only stops working when it’s time to go to sleep.
A huge thank you to Paw Pha for interpreting for Tee Hla and of course to Tee Hla herself.
I recently attended the annual citizenship ceremony held at Cortland’s Supreme Court and witnessed several of our clients, including Yang Chu (pictured left), take the oath of allegiance. As I first arrived I was filled with a deep satisfaction when I saw how many of them were already seated in the rotunda waiting to take the final steps of their path to citizenship. And I felt grateful when I saw Yang Chu sitting front and center with her family because I knew what a great accomplishment it was for her to acquire the knowledge and language skills needed to naturalize. It was a beautiful ceremony and as it was wrapping up, I was reminded of the saying (or is it a psalm?) about enjoying the fruits of our labor.
The process to becoming a US citizen can certainly be laborious and the culmination of that hard work, which is then celebrated at the naturalization ceremonies, does remind me of biting into a perfectly ripened piece of fruit. They are both meant to be savored and every aspect of them are enjoyable. The labor that is required to learn all of the knowledge needed to naturalize for Yang Chu and others like her – those who came to the US knowing very little English and who knew even less about American history, geography, and our political system – can be quite daunting. The bar for Yang Chu and other non-citizens to become naturalized is set quite high. But fortunately for her, the labor was divided and she had someone to share the burden with. Her tutor, Ginny Schumacher, or as Yang Chu often refers to her, “Number 1 Teacher,” made the goal of attaining citizenship achievable.
Over the years, Catholic Charities has partnered with Tompkins Learning Partners (TLP) to get clients ready for the citizenship test and Ginny is one of their tutors. Thanks to her, students can begin learning incredible amounts of information in order to pass the civics test and prove they can comprehend the material that is included in the citizenship application. Ginny, who has been a TLP tutor for 5 years, worked over 1 ½ years with Yang Chu to prepare her for the test and interview. At first they met weekly for 2 hour classes and then doubled their time together as her citizenship interview appointment drew closer.
When tutoring new students, Ginny begins by teaching them simple greetings, colors, numbers, and even has them compare their homeland flag to the US flag. While her lessons include phonics, vocabulary, syntax and conversation, Ginny says she also uses those early lessons to observe the students. “The whole time, I am trying to determine their readiness to come every week and their eagerness to become American.” She not only observed how Yang Chu was someone who genuinely wanted to be a US citizen but also saw her as someone who strived to be more “American” with her English.
For Yang Chu, learning the English required to pass the citizenship test was a huge undertaking. Even though she had attended ESL classes at TST BOCES prior to starting the citizenship prep classes she still had a steep learning curve. When asked to describe the learning process Yang Chu recalled how “many of the words I was learning looked similar; distinguishing one from another and memorizing all of them appeared to be a ‘mission impossible’ for quite a while.” But even though the material was difficult, Yang Chu still had Ginny, whose teaching skills and patience moved the process along. There was mutual respect between the teacher and student and definitely a strong bond. Ginny described Yang Chu as a “terrific student” and Yang Chu described Ginny as “the most amazing teacher I have encountered in my life.”
Once Yang Chu’s interview date arrived she traveled to Buffalo and Ginny stayed behind in Ithaca. But Ginny received a phone call before the day was over and was elated to hear Yang Chu’s news of: “Teacher! I pass! I pass!! Thank you, Number 1 Teacher!” She had just taken a giant leap forward on her path to citizenship; a path that could have been much more difficult if it hadn’t been for Ginny’s labor of love style of teaching.
The memory of Yang Chu being sworn in as a new citizen is something I will cherish a long time and it was somthing that still reminds me of the saying (psalm?) about enjoying the fruits of our labor. But it’s even more special when her daughter translated how excited Yang Chu is to cast her first vote in 2016 and how she feels “becoming a US citizen was one of the most prideful days in my life and a moment of immeasurable joy, honor, and privilege.”
*a special thanks to Yang Chu’s daughter, Hongnan, for helping out with translation*