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A community in transition: Syracuse’s Somali-Bantu refugees need literacy for citizenship test

For refugees that did not have access to formal education in their home country, learning to read and write for the first time in a foreign language is especially difficult.

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At the SBCA, Habiba Mberwa sits at a desk, painstakingly copying sentences in a notebook. She says that for five months, she has been attending citizenship classes at the center.

After five years of permanent residency in the United States, resettled refugees can apply for citizenship. The process is long, and involves a basic literacy as well as an oral civics exam, all in English. For refugees that did not have access to formal education in their host country, learning to read and write for the first time in a foreign language is especially difficult.

About 100 families make up the Somali-Bantu refugee community in Syracuse, New York. After escaping Somalia’s civil war, many lived in Kenyan refugee camps for more than ten years before immigrating to the United States. Conditions in refugee camps contributed to high illiteracy rates among these people, making it even more difficult for them to start a new life in the U.S.

Mumina Deqow isn’t visibly upset when she recalls life in the camps. Even when she speaks about past difficulties and hardships, she rarely loses her positive attitude.

After officially becoming a citizen of the United States, Mumina Deqow (left) sits with her husband and two young children at the ceremony in the Onondaga County Courthouse in April.

“I was born in 1991,” she said. “When the war started, everybody moved… I was 2 years old, on the back of my mom.”
She says that she could only read and write her name and country of origin when she arrived in Syracuse at the age of 14. There are few translators outside of the community for

Mumino Mohammed, 9, takes a moment from activities at the SBCA to show the henna designs drawn on her hands. For many Somali-Bantu refugees, life becomes a mix of Somali and American culture.

Maay Maay, her native language. Deqow entered the English Language Learners program through the Syracuse City School District. Like many Somali-Bantu students, Deqow struggled.

Leaders in the Somali-Bantu community recognized that their children were having difficulties in school, and began a tutoring program in a private home. Demand for the program was so strong, the group then decided to work with nonprofits and the school district to find a larger space. They expanded to

For older refugees, the citizenship process can be especially challenging. Candidates must pass a basic literacy test and oral civics exam, all in English.

offer afterschool programs and a Saturday session for more than 100 kids every week. In 2007, the group became officially known as the Somali-Bantu Community Association (SBCA). One of the founding members, Haji Adan, now acts as Literacy Program Director.

“When we lived in Somalia, we believed it takes a whole village to raise a child. If I don’t know what my neighbor is eating tonight, then I’m not a good neighbor,” Adan said. “That’s who we are, and we didn’t want to lose that culture.”

Adan says that the center’s founders soon saw a need for adult refugees to get help adjusting to their new life as well. Most services through the Office of Refugee Resettlement are designed to last for only five years, and many members of the community were nearing their 5th year of residency in the US. After five years, adult refugees also have the opportunity to apply for U.S. citizenship. For those who are illiterate in their own language, the English literacy requirement can be a stretch.

The SBCA expanded their services to include adult literacy and English classes, as well as classes geared specifically to the citizenship test. The center offers translation services to assist new arrivals in filling out government paperwork, public assistance forms, or citizenship applications.

Adan says that a number of Somali-Bantu community centers offering tutoring and other support services have been established throughout the country. They have one significant characteristic: they are run by members of the refugee community.

23-year-old Lul Hassan works as an office assistant at the SBCA, and has taught citizenship classes there as well.

She explains that in addition to the basic literacy test, citizenship candidates must answer civics questions in an oral exam with a U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services officer. The questions can range from “How many amendments does the Constitution have?” to “We elect a U.S. Representative for how many years?”

“First when you are starting the class it’s very difficult, they feel like they want to quit because the questions are very hard,” Hassan said.

The New Reader’s Press in Syracuse develops study materials for citizenship and naturalization candidates for national distribution. Terrie Lipke is the senior editor, and she says that these questions can be difficult for those unfamiliar with U.S. political norms.

“Probably the hardest thing is to understand concepts behind the test, like the way U.S. government works. If you’re not literate in your native language, and you were never involved in government or politics in your native country, then how can you relate to how the Supreme Court works?” she said.

But Hassan says that even though studying for the test can be difficult, her students are dedicated. Citizenship means a great deal to refugees whose families have been separated.

“It is different when you are a refugee and a citizen. For example, I’m a citizen. If I have a child living outside the US, I can apply a visa for my child, he can come, or a fiancé or husband away from me, or my own mother I can bring her to US,” Hassan said.

For Mumina Deqow, passing the citizenship exam in November wasn’t too difficult. After attending high school in Syracuse, her English skills improved dramatically. She says it only took her a couple months to study for the civics section.

“Now I’ll be able to vote, and to see everything,” she smiled. She says it’s easier to travel internationally as a fully naturalized citizen.

Standing next to her husband at a ceremony on a sunny April day in Syracuse, Deqow took the oath to officially become a citizen. Their two children, Ikran and Asahal, waved tiny American flags as they climbed over the courtroom benches. About 15 other members of the Somali-Bantu refugee community also became citizens that day.

A group of Somali-Bantu women sit together at an April citizenship ceremony in Syracuse, New York.

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