Bridging gaps toward dreams of citizenship

By Johnny Jackson

Alem Abebe is excited about her chance to earn United States citizenship. The native Ethiopian attends a free citizenship class every week, hoping to improve her English and U. S. civics knowledge.

And by doing so, she might successfully apply for citizenship, Aug. 8, with the help of Leslie Sarn, her English and U. S. civics instructor – and also one of her biggest supporters.

Sarn works with Bridging the Gap Project, Inc., a non-profit service agency that offers free citizenship instruction to Georgia's immigrant community.

"We depend on donations, contributions, and government grants," said Seilavong Doeung, director of Bridging the Gap, Inc. "We would be helped to have contributors, either in volunteers or monetarily."

Doeung spoke, in part, from personal experience. The native-born Cambodian remembered his refugee status nearly twenty years ago. He said he was about 6 years-old when his parents and four siblings were forced into refugee camps.

"We were fortunate enough to leave, then, and be sponsored by a church from Ft. Worth, TX," Doeung said, reminding himself about the importance of philanthropy. "(The project) has had volunteers to tutor students, and we have had speakers to speak with students about civic duties. Whatever people are able to contribute helps."

Ten years ago, Abebe won the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS-DV) Diversity Visa Lottery, held each year by the State Department. According to the USCIS-DV Program, 55,000 immigrant visas are made available each year to people from countries with low rates of immigration to the U.S.

Last Monday, six in the community, each with different nationalities, perched around an elliptical table set quietly in a small conference room at the back of the Clayton County Library Headquarters and listened intently to Sarn.

"On Aug. 8, Alem will interview with the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services (or USCIS) to become a U. S. citizen," Sarn said, announcing the news to the class. "The class will give Alem an idea of what her interview might be like by asking her questions about U. S. history and government."

Charles Lejeune, one of the more vocal students in the class, is a local master barber from Haiti, who has been living in Georgia for the past nine years. His thick Haitian accent echoed in the airy room when he asked Abebe questions, hoping to become a citizen soon.

"I'll just be patient," he said.

Consequently, Sarn is constantly amazed at the resilience of the people in her class.

"It's so critical for these people to learn English," she said. "A lot of people are feeling very anxious about getting their paper work squared away. I always tell them, if they take this class, they will not fail the test for U. S. citizenship."

Marion Glascock, a native of Germany, has lived in the United States for 11 years with her American husband and their three children, ages 11, nine, eight. The couple is currently expecting their fourth child.

"The class is great," said Glascock, who waited this long to apply for citizenship because she has never felt motivated. But "(now) I feel like I should do something for myself. They help you with things that you wouldn't know or that you wouldn't study on your own."

Paula Nguyen, a Vietnamese national, arrived in the U. S. a year ago with her American husband and daughter. And Rabria Khan, a Pakistani business partner, brings her 10-year-old daughter Urossa along with her to citizenship classes.

Two months ago, Khan took her 10-year-old daughter Urossa into a local library to checkout a book. Khan was not satisfied with her English and asked a librarian if there were any classes to take to improve her English. And the librarian suggested the citizenship class.

Since, she said she has tried to take time to attend as many classes as she can between supporting a business and family with her husband.

"I want to know about U.S. history," Khan said. "I want to know more about America."

She and her husband moved to Georgia from Toronto, Canada, about three years ago to be closer to family. In 2003, they decided to operate a Citgo Gas Station in Ellenwood.

"It's very beautiful and nice here," she said. "I like the weather. Toronto is too cold."

Khan's oldest daughters attend Clayton College and State University. And one hopes to be a doctor.

"It's my dream, you know," she said, about her hopes for her daughter." My motivation is very strong. I want to live a good life here, with a good education for my children."

"There are so many dimensions in this class," Sarn said. "It's a commentary on the fact that the U. S. is one big melting pot. The people who come here add a certain richness. And it's impressive from my point of view how some people have become real success stories."