It’s 10 a.m. on a holiday Monday. The East African Community Center is quiet. Nobody is supposed to be there.
But volunteer Peter Schnurman is, unlocking the doors and letting students in.
The classroom is small and plain. A table and eight chairs fill most of the space. A map of the United States perches atop metal filing cabinets; a whiteboard to its left. Prayer rugs are in the corner, some folded, some rolled, left for students who quietly excuse themselves from class to pray.
Schnurman will spend an hour and a half today teaching three women from different parts of Africa. All wear hijabs that cover their heads. All want to be U.S. citizens.
In 2011, nearly 4,500 people came from Somalia to the U.S. as legal residents, according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. In the same year, almost 24,000 legal residents chose to call Washington state home.
While immigration continues to be a polarizing debate in the U.S., Schnurman believes he is serving his country by helping these refugees and immigrants — one citizenship class at a time — realize their American dream of freedom. It’s important to him that these students get a chance at citizenship, “so they can enjoy the rights and freedoms that we all have, the freedoms we talk about in class.”
It’s these students — the handful of women who come to school when their kids have the day off — to struggle through basic reading, writing and history skills — that keep Schnurman coming back, four times each week. “All the students and [I] have been bonded,” he said. “I feel responsible to come back till they’ve finished.”
A majority of the students come from the war-torn country of Somalia. They are refugees. The classes are predominantly made up of Muslim students from Africa, but immigrants and refugees from all over the globe utilize the service. Hundreds of them have become citizens since the program began in 2001. Volunteers teach the classes twice a day, once in the morning and once in the evening. According to volunteer coordinator Elizia Artis, these are the only free citizenship training classes in the area, .
Offering free classes is key because many students use government assistance and cannot afford to pay, says on-site Caseworker Trina Clay. But the price of freedom doesn’t stop with the classes. The citizenship test itself costs $680 for each attempt. People who receive any government assistance are able to get the fee waived and take the test for free. If a student fails the test, Artis said the staff works “frantically” to try to get the fee waived again.
“Come on Bintu, you know this. Did you sleep last night?” Schnurman jokes.
Bintu laughs, and the crystals that form an arrow pattern on her tan hijab catch the fluorescent light. She knows the answer to the question, but it isn’t coming to her. “I did, I no remember,” she said.
Bintu, 34, is one of 25 new students currently preparing to take the citizenship test. She came from Gambia in 2000 after applying for a visa. Now she lives in Seattle with her husband and two children, both of whom were born in the U.S. and are American citizens. Her husband is waiting to take his test and she has made an appointment to schedule her test, but it will likely be four or five months before the time comes.
Each day, Schnurman has six to 10 students in his class. They become his friends.
Some keep in touch, like the Ethiopian woman Schnurman worked with for a year before she passed her citizenship test this January. Last week, she stopped by the class to bring treats. Other students he doesn’t hear from for years, like the man he worked with four years ago who just recently called him “out of the blue” to thank him.
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