All American 

Refugees pass the ultimate test ... literally

An applicant must answer at least 60 percent of the questions correctly on the U.S. government's naturalization test.

Laurie Pearman

An applicant must answer at least 60 percent of the questions correctly on the U.S. government's naturalization test.

Independence Day came early this year. So did Christmas. The joy and celebration usually reserved for the Fourth of July or the 25th of December filled more than a few hearts at Boise's Grove Plaza on June 23.

"Today is ..." said Alberto Dominguez, an elderly Cuban, choking on his tears for a moment. "It's very happy, today. Very happy."

A few feet away stood just-turned 18-year-old Layla Hussein of Somalia.

"Today is ..." Hussein waved her arms looking for the words. "I just want to go somewhere ... like wild. ... I don't know."

Dominguez and Hussein had little in common except their smiles and the fact that they are now Americans. They joined 23 other refugees in becoming the United States' newest citizens.

Hundreds of onlookers, spilling from the Capital City Public Market, became witnesses to the ceremony as they happened upon the formal swearing-in. But the setting was anything but staid; music and dancing filled the plaza as nearby artisans and cooks shared their cultures.

More than a few of the bystanders said, "I had no idea," as they became unwitting participants in Boise's celebration of World Refugee Day.

[Click here to see a slideshow of the celebration.]

"I must tell you that years ago, when we first started World Refugee Day, we struggled," said Christina Bruce-Bennion, program director at Agency for New Americans.

"A number of other cities have much more somber events. But we eventually came to feel that we should make this a celebration. The refugees are visible. They're a part of who we are."

Bruce-Bennion spends her days managing ANA, one of Boise's three primary resettlement agencies, along with the International Rescue Committee and World Relief-Boise. Along with her staff of 11, she helps integrate anywhere from 100 to 150 refugees into the Treasure Valley at any given time.

"Afghans, Bhutanese, Burundis, Burmese, Congolese, Iraqis, Nepalese, Somalis," said Bruce-Bennion. "We literally meet them at the Boise Airport and work with them on housing, health care, education and employment. We might have 40 arrivals in a month."

Sooner than later, any new refugee over the age of 18 is introduced to Chalise Thomson, an instructor with the English Language Center.

"Yes, the refugees' case managers will send them here," said Thomson. "They're required to come here 15 hours a week. We have eight different classes, with as many as 16 students in each class."

Thomson's classroom looks quite traditional. Desktop PCs line the walls. The alphabet and often-used phrases of the English language are posted around the room. But the setting is anything but typical just outside the classroom door.

The center shares space with Bronco Elite Gymnastics. Just a few feet away, young girls somersault and spring through the air while Britney Spears blares from a loud speaker. Coming to America was challenging enough for the refugees, but watching them negotiate a labyrinth of floor mats, pummel horses and balance beams on their way to English class is surreal.

"Generally, I have to explain to people what a refugee is," said Thomson. "I get so frustrated when people ask, 'Why are all these foreigners here?' Well, No. 1, they didn't have a choice. No. 2, they're going to English class, and they really want to take care of their families and make sure that their families are safe. They really want to be a part of America."

Thomson said one of the biggest challenges is convincing refugees that men and women who are caregivers or are in law enforcement are here to help them.

"Ironically, police and doctors are people that they want to avoid, because they may have caused them pain and harm in their native country," said Thomson. "So we have a police officer and a health caregiver come in. We say, 'The police are good. They're here to help.'"

Bruce-Bennion said it was not uncommon for her to hear push back from the community a few years ago.

"Yes, we were feeling some of that. We would hear, 'Who's responsibility are they?' There are always people who question why we should be bringing them here," she said. "But out of the crucible of crisis come initiatives with long-term impact."

In particular, she referenced something called the Refugee Resource Strategic Community Plan.

"It's a community effort, something really special," said Bruce-Bennion. "This is different from a lot of other plans that I've been involved with in the past."

As an example, she said the City of Boise made a point of reaching out to the refugee community in crafting its new ordinance regarding taxis. Bruce-Bennion said a good number of refugees have found regular work in owning and operating taxicabs in the City of Trees.

"The city was very proactive in reaching out on that," she said.

One of the new rules has very specific requirements to understand English. And that's where Thomson comes in.

"They spend two hours every day with me in a class and an additional hour using English on a computer," said Thomson. "And I'm always working them to get ready for the test."

The test is the ultimate barrier between being a refugee and being an American. The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services has an official list of 100 questions regarding American government, history and geography.

Some questions are simple: "Who was the first president?" Most are rather challenging: "When was the Constitution written?" "Name one of the writers of The Federalist Papers." In fact, many Boiseans struggled with answering most of the questions from the test when Boise Weekly asked them the same questions.

"I have to admit, I had no idea when I first looked at it," said Thomson. "They have to get at least 60 percent correct, plus pass a reading and writing portion in order to become a citizen. And when they pass it, I'm so, so proud. I say, 'Look what you did. You make America stronger.'"

Bruce-Bennion became equally emotional.

"Refugees are ..." she took a moment. "Sometimes refugees represent the worst of what we can do to one another, yet they have this ... gosh ... they have this faith, this hope. And they have sheer resilience to go into the unknown."

And long after they pass the test, become Americans and move on with their lives, Bruce-Bennion likes to hear success stories, sometimes years later.

"Someone came into the office the other day, I remember them from 10 years ago," she remembered. "Their children are doing great in school, they bought a home and own a business. They're part of the community. I thought back to all of their heartbreaking challenges. But there is such strength."

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