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The citizenship whisperer

Peter Schnurman jokes with two students during a mens vs. womens trivia competition. Credit: Photo: Sarah Radmer

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. 

In the lulls between the flash cards and writing practice, Schnurman teases the students and asks them questions about their lives and the lives they left behind. He includes anecdotes from his own travels. “This scarf is from Ethiopia,” he tells them, gesturing to the multi-colored knit scarf with green overtones hanging from his neck, a souvenir from one of his volunteer trips.

The top of his head likely hasn’t seen hair for many years. But the sides and back grow long and white, gathered in a ponytail. He wears a black leather jacket over his orange shirt. When a student tries to help someone new by giving them hints in Somali, he stops them. “She can do it,” he said.

Two times a week, Schnurman has an extra volunteer, usually a student from a local university. (Full disclosure: The writer was a student volunteer in the citizenship classes, but did not work with Schnurman.) He’ll often send students who need extra help out with the volunteer for one-on-one tutoring. 

But most of the time, it’s Schnurman working alone with the students. As time goes on, he gets to know their back story, where they came from, where they work and how many children they have. Building relationships with his students helps Schnurman break down barriers and be a more effective teacher to prepare them for the test.

The test has four parts: an interview, history, reading and writing.

“Do you have paper? I want you to take it out,” he tells the class. “Write ‘Memorial Day is in May.’ Come on Bintu, you can do it.”

The students pull out notebooks — some pristine and others that have seen better days, their spines crumpled beyond any semblance of the round shape they once held.

“It’s hard,” Bintu says, forming sentences on the paper with large blocky letters that resemble the penmanship of a kindergartener. 

“You can do it,” he says again.

When students struggle to communicate in English, Schnurman switches to Swahili, instructing the Somali students who picked up the language in refugee camps in Kenya.

The turnover is constant. Some students come to class a few days, others stay for months. The languages —  Vietnamese, Swahili, Chinese, Somali, Arabic — are always changing. Even though the classes are taught in English, there are often side conversations among people who find solace in others who can speak their native tongue. Week to week the dynamic of skill level and competence changes as students come and go.   

But when Schnurman goes around the table, the reason they are there is the same.

“For freedom.”

When it comes to volunteers, Schnurman is an anomaly. Most stay for a few months or the length of a university term to get the required volunteer hours for a class. Schnurman has been there consistently since 2007. “He’s a Godsend,” says Artis, who handles all of the volunteers for the center.

The 75-year-old son of Polish and Austrian immigrants sees this class as his way to give back. “This is a good way that I can serve my country, helping to make citizens,” he says. “Because I really believe in diversity and I believe we’re a strong country because we’re from all over.”

Schnurman describes himself as the guy who is always there. He volunteers four times a week for the eight months a year he lives in Seattle. The other four months, he and his wife travel, volunteering. He learned to speak Swahili through his volunteer work in Kenya. This fall they will go to Tanzania. He sees his work, both abroad and at home, as empowerment and estimates that he has helped hundreds of students gain their citizenship.

“You see how important it is to other people who were not born here, why they want to become citizens,” he said. “For most people, they really want to become citizens, they want to be able to vote, they want to participate in all walks of American life. It’s not just a question of ‘Can I get a passport?’ It’s more than that.”

It’s freedom.

The freedom of the U.S. comes with new territory for many students, including school. 

For students like Bari, 53, from Somalia, this may be their first experience with school. She didn’t attend school as a child. When she began classes about a month ago, it was the first time she’d been in a classroom. 

Artis tells the volunteers that some students may not be used to U.S. education customs. They answer their phones at the table and loudly carry on a conversation. They talk across the table to each other while the teacher is trying to give instructions. They have to be taught what school is like and how they’re supposed to act. 

Language, religious and cultural barriers can add to the frustration for both students and volunteers. When tensions run high, Artis will step in, bringing with her a world map, so students can explain their background. 

The exercise shows: “It’s not just you going through this process,” Artis says. “There's a lot of people with a lot of stories.”

Many of the students are Muslim. The women’s skin is covered from head to neck to wrist to foot. Schnurman has learned not to touch the women, out of respect. If he tries to touch their shoulder, he said, they will “recoil, not in disgust,” but because of the cultural differences.

Cultural differences are also a part of the citizenship test, and thus part of the class. “Name one American Indian Tribe,” Schnurman instructs a student.

“Cherokee,” she answers. “Or black feet.” 

He turns to another and asks what freedom of religion means in America.

“It means you can practice or not practice, any religion you want,” the student answers.

About 65 to 70 percent of the students at the center pass the test their first time. After the second attempt, the rate rises to 85 percent. If they’re unsuccessful, Artis and Clay encourage them to go study with Schnurman.

Most of the students call Schnurman “teacher.” When they pass their test, he is often one of the first people they call.

In about four months, Bintu hopes to be one of those students who receives her citizenship. She will answer the interview and history questions, read and write. If she is successful, she’ll gain her citizenship.

And when she does, another student will take her place in Schnurman’s class with their own hope of becoming a citizen. 

For freedom.

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