Paw Pleh, at age 9, escaped her village in Burma just before soldiers burned it to the ground.
“I remember the Burmese soldiers killed my relatives and killed other people in my village,” Pleh said. “We had to flee to the jungle, and sometimes we had to go back to the house to get some food.”
After 24 years in Thai refugee camps, Pleh applied for refugee status in 2007, and was settled North Carolina in 2010 with her five children and husband. She arrived with just one year of formal education, when she learned her alphabet.
Last month, however, Pleh’s most immediate challenge was remembering to stand up when her name was called for a citizenship interview.
On spring break from her UNC dining services job, Pleh sat in the Refugee Support Center waiting area, pretending it was a U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services office.
Flicka Bateman, director of the Refugee Support Center, played the interviewer:
“Why are you here today?” she asked. “How long have you been in the U.S.?” “When did you come?”
Pleh was one of 54 students from Orange, Durham and Alamance counties who studied for citizenship tests this spring, through the Orange County Literacy Council. The council and Church World Services funded the classes through a federal grant and hope to enroll 200 students under the two-year grant.
Orange County’s students hailed from Burma, China, Guatemala, Mexico and El Salvador – 16 of those students refugees from Burma and China.
All told in Orange County, 13.1 percent of the population is foreign-born, 31.2 percent of whom are naturalized citizens and able to vote – according to the U.S. Census Bureau and N.C. Justice Center. Since 2005, 936 refugees have resettled in Orange County, by Orange County Health Department records.
Green card required
Immigrants and refugees can earn citizenship status, in general, if they are permanent residents, 18 or older, and have lived in the U.S. for five years – or for three years if married to a U.S. citizen. The federal grant required all students to present their green card when they enrolled for the classes, to verify their legal status, said Elgiva Wood, Civics Education Program Coordinator with Orange Literacy.
“For citizenship class, students should be at or approaching five years of permanent residency in the US – meaning, they can prepare a little in advance of their five years of permanent residency,” Wood said.
But first the residents must pass a gauntlet of requirements.
For adults still grappling with English – some of whom are not fully literate in their first language – even ordinal numbers (“fifth,” “ninth”) and potential interview questions like “Are you a terrorist?” can trip up their quest for citizenship.
Applicants must pass an interview, English and civics tests covering U.S. history and government. They must correctly pledge an Oath of Allegiance. Students committed to attending two-hour classes two-three times per week, at sites in Chapel Hill, Carrboro, and Hillsborough.
At the Hillsborough classes, teacher Lisa Bobst described how daunting the classes can seem.
“I think the most challenging thing is keeping (the students) motivated, because they are very nervous. It’s an intense process, and they don’t want to screw it up,” Bobst said.
‘To show my kids’
For Rogelio Najero Galeano, his four children and sense of community keep him motivated. Galeano, from Mexico, lives in Hillsborough and works at a swim and tennis club.
“We feel like we’re kind of visitors, now, and I want to feel like a part of this country,” he said.
“I wanted to show my kids they have to work hard. My daughter helps me. She’s proud of me, because I said I’m not good in school, but I’m trying.”
In class, Galeano and his fellow students took turns dictating sentences for others to write down. The mood was playful.
“Slow, please,” Galeano said, laughing.
This interactive learning style makes a difference, Jose de Jesus Martinez-Rodriguez said.
“Two or three years ago, I tried to read the book, and I said, ‘It’s very boring,’ but now that I’m taking the class, it’s very fun,” he said.
I wanted to show my kids they have to work hard.
Rogelio Najero Galeano, father of four
For Claudia Esparza, the citizenship classes represent one more step to making her own life decisions. Growing up in Mexico, she felt the pressured to stop her education early.
“I tell my mom, ‘I’d like to go to high school,’ and she said, ‘Oh, no, you’re going to get married.’”
Finally, three years ago, she earned her GED. Citizenship is next.
The class’s comfortable atmosphere, where personal stories like Esparza’s weave in and out, helped boost the students’ morale, Bobst said.
“We talk about the strengths and weaknesses of each student, and how they can help each other. Some are good at speaking, some good at writing, but … they’re helping each other.”
“Like Rogelio just applied for naturalization. They’re cheering him on.”
The class was also making sure to include Esparza, when she left for two weeks in Mexico care for her her father, who has cancer, after losing his wife to cancer. Claudia had planned to keep attending the citizenship class, via Facetime.
Checks and balances
In a recent class, the conversation revolved around elections.
“Who will be a citizen in September?” teacher Forrest Johnson asked. A few students raised their hands; others paused more tentatively.
“If you become a citizen in September, you can do what?”
“Register to vote,” the student chorused.
Students learned about a citizen’s duty to serve on a jury. Burmese students Bue Plo Wah and Mu Nwe jumped up to join hands in a ring with Johnson and pull back – demonstrating the three branches of government and its system of checks and balances.
Some are good at speaking, some good at writing, but … they’re helping each other.
Teacher Lisa Bobst
Han Min Thein and Yuh Wah Thein, husband and wife, compared their new knowledge of the U.S. Constitution with their memories of Burma. Both survived student revolutions in Burma and fled to Thailand.
“What is really interesting is the Constitution of the U.S., because for me this is the first thing I learned,” Han Mon Thein said. “I am 48 years old. In our country, over 60 years the military government controlled our country. We don’t know about the Constitution.”
“And the Bill of Rights,” Yuh Wah Thein added.
“And then in the U.S., they protect everyone by the law. In our country, they don’t protect everyone by the law,” her husband said.
Yet even after students master their rights, history dates, and the branches of government – mundane-seeming details can derail them from passing the tests.
“What I find is that they can’t answer all the questions that some people ask … such as, ‘Raise your right hand and put your left hand on the Bible,’” Bateman said.
But Paw Pleh could. She passed her interview, and her history and civics test in late April.
Last week she raised her right hand, put her left on the Bible, and was sworn in as a U.S. citizen.
Classes are free of charge to any qualifying resident living or working in Orange, Durham or Alamance counties. Contact Elgiva Wood at 919-914-6153 (ext. 21) or firstname.lastname@example.org. Or stop by the Orange County Literacy Council at 200 N Greensboro St., Suite C-2 in Carrboro (on the 2nd floor of Carr Mill Mall).
Refugee center honored
The Refugee Support Center, one of the citizenship class host sites, won the 2016 Peace Prize from the N.C. Peace Corps Association. The $1,000 prize is awarded annually to the North Carolina organization that best fosters understanding between Americans and people from other countries.
The Refugee Support Center is a nonprofit volunteer-based organization established to serve and to promote the self-sufficiency of refugees who live or work in Orange County.
The center, directed by Flicka Bateman, operates out of the Carolina Apartments clubhouse in Carrboro, where many Burmese refugees live. It offers help with interpretation, job applications, health care enrollment, housing applications, enrichment for children, and citizenship and immigration paperwork.
“We are thrilled that the Refugee Support Center has been selected for the Peace Prize,” Bateman said. “It puts a positive spotlight on refugees, both those already in our community and those waiting in refugee camps to gain admission to a democratic country.”