Naturalization offers sense of identity, purpose for residents
— As a detainee in a refugee camp, Hsathablay Moo had no sense of belonging, no notion of self. “It seems like you’re an alien,” she says. “As a refugee for 24 years, I’d been through a lot, so much struggle, so much trauma, so many hardships; the one thing that was missing from my life was my identity.”
Once she became a U.S. citizen four years ago, Moo says she felt like a human again. “I felt like I had freedom, I could travel anywhere,” she adds. “I really treasure that.”
Like so many others, Moo’s life before coming to the United States was filled with the notion that she didn’t belong. And this morning, 44 people in the Akron area were officially sworn in as citizens at Main Library in downtown Akron as part of a group naturalization ceremony.
Now Moo works as a translation coordinator for the International Institute of Akron (IIA), a resettlement agency in North Hill that prepares immigrants and refugees with the skills to pass their civics tests and interviews to become naturalized citizens.
But not every naturalized citizen living in Akron has a back story filled with hardship and challenges. Madhu Sharma, director of Immigration Services at the International Institute, says she became a citizen at 10 when her parents were naturalized, which means she didn’t have to take the civics exam.
“I gained citizenship through my parents because I was a minor,” she recounts. “So I probably took it for granted until I pursued this line of work and saw what it meant to my clients and how hard they worked to gained citizenship and how difficult it is to qualify for residency in this country.”
As an immigration attorney, Sharma works to help others navigate the sometimes arduous process of gaining citizenship. One barrier, she notes, is cost: $680. “People don’t always know that there is low-cost legal services and a fee waiver,” she says. “If they qualify for a fee waiver, we can help them submit applications so that money is not an issue for them.”
International Institute offers a number of different levels of citizenship classes, which help equip immigrants and refugees to become naturalized. “We want them to fully integrate into the Akron community,” says Sharma. “Full integration is important to become a citizen so they can participate in the political process and also gain the full benefits and rights of a citizen.”
Learn English first
For those seeking citizenship, the most important piece of advice is to learn English first, says many we interviewed.
“Citizenship has a lot of difficult words and abstract concepts they’ve not been exposed to, like separation of power and executive and legislative (branches of government); these are words we don’t normally use in English,” says Larie Shaw, a teacher at the International Institute of Akron.
Amber Subba, a former refugee who earned his citizenship three years ago, offers this advice: “Don’t get nervous, start from the beginning and learn English: not only spoken language, but you should be able to write and read.”
Studying for the 100-question civics exam also is key. And for those who are busy or unable to focus on studying a book, there are audio CDs available, says Bhim Dhungana, who earned his citizenship in 2014. “I do not have that much time to go online and read, so I used a CD in my car, so every time I started my car, the CD would start asking questions.”
He adds: “If you have limited English, you probably need to start from ESL classes, you need to learn a little bit of English, go back to 100 questions and prepare for the test.” International Institute and Project Learn (located at the Main Library) are two agencies that offer a number of varying levels of English classes.
Having naturalized citizens benefits American-born residents as well, as our entire country is founded on the notion of immigration, and naturalized citizens are able to participate democratically and tend to feel a stronger sense of community.
And it offers a perspective of how much freedom many of us take for granted. “I recently traveled back to India and spent several months there with my family, and it reminded me what it means to be a woman in this country as an American, and how many choices I have,” says Sharma. “I’m so glad my parents immigrated here. What it means to me is choices. It gave me the choice to be the type of person I am today, which is very different from a traditional Indian woman.”
For info about IIA’s English and citizenship classes, visit www.iiakron.org.