“What’s the date?” I asked Samar, the first time we talked.
“January 19,” she replied, with the excitement and nervousness of a pregnant woman announcing her due date. As that date was only one month away, I sensed the pride, worry, excitement, and awe in her voice.
But Samar was not anticipating the birth of her fifth child. Rather, she was counting the days until she would take the USCIS (U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services) Naturalization Test to become an American citizen.
The gestation period had been 11 years, starting with the outbreak of the civil war in her native Syria, followed by the one-day bus ride from her hometown of Homs to Amman, Jordan. There, Samar, her husband, and their three children spent the next five years in a refugee camp.
When they arrived in the United States in July 2015, they settled in Elizabeth, finally secure in a new environment. Their fourth baby was born there. But when the floods of Hurricane Ida destroyed that home, they were displaced once again. This time, they found themselves in Atlantic City.
Not easily deterred, Samar refused to allow a flood, pandemic, death or sickness to interfere with her preparation to become an American citizen. When I heard that the Westfield Fun Club of Temple Emanu-el (a group of volunteers who help refugees) was looking for someone to guide Samar along this journey, I thought of how the Torah teaches us to welcome the stranger. I imagined my grandmother’s journey from Belarus to becoming a naturalized U.S. citizen on December 14, 1937.
It didn’t take me long to seize this exciting opportunity.
Samar and I first met on Zoom. I was in my quiet house in Montclair, with reliable WiFi; she and her husband were living temporarily in a tiny house in Atlantic City, with spotty Internet access and four kids home from school.
It was like a blind date! I didn’t know what to expect. How much had she studied on her own? What were her English skills? My Arabic was limited to “Shukran” (thank you) and “As-salamu alaykum” (peace be upon you). I knew that would only take us only so far.
I did know that preparing for the naturalization test and interview was not for the faint of heart. An applicant must correctly answer six out of 10 civics, government, and American history questions from a list of 100 possible stumpers.
In addition, the applicant must show proficiency in English reading and writing and be able to discuss the personal answers already entered in the N400 application form. Finally, the applicant must be able to have an “everyday” conversation in English.
I needn’t have worried about Samar. With the help of Arabic/English YouTube videos, she had done her homework. Then what would my role be? I would be her English language cheerleader. I would boost her confidence and reduce her level of stress with the other 3 Rs — Review, Reinforce, and Repeat.
When we greeted each other on Zoom, we easily talked about our daily routines and our families. Then we drilled those 100 questions like it was boot camp. Well, boot camp with a smile and an air kiss at the end of our one-hour sessions. George Washington, Nancy Pelosi, John Roberts, Phil Murphy, and Thomas Jefferson became Samar’s best friends. Never mind her children’s birthdays; suddenly, July 4, 1776, and the year 1787 were more important.
Samar could rattle off the names of her U.S. senator and representative, but did she really need to know that Eisenhower was a general before he was president? As we plowed through the minutiae of some of the questions, I began to imagine a more relevant and compassionate exam.
How about “What does it mean to be a good neighbor?” instead of “Name one of the two longest rivers in the U.S.”? Would nine questions about the U.S. Constitution suffice instead of 10? If we replaced the 10th with “Name two ways that people all around the world are the same,” I would feel better. As we slog through the pandemic, “Name one person or group of people you protect when you wear a mask and are vaccinated” is more relevant than the fact that Guam is one of the five U.S. territories.
When Samar and I were satisfied with the history drill, we continued with the next sections. She read and wrote sentences such as “Alaska is the largest state” and “The people elect Congress.” With the help of Zoom, WhatsApp, Voice Memos, and Word, reading and writing practice flew back and forth like tennis balls in a finals match.
The prospect of a casual conversation with the examiner caused Samar sleepless nights. Therefore, we role-played and watched USCIS YouTube mock interviews. The videos were so authentic that we both wept when the two actors took the oath of allegiance as U.S. citizens.
After I met with Samar regularly for a month, her “due date” finally arrived. On January 19, at 2:45 p.m., my cellphone flashed with a text of hearts and kisses.
Her message read, “Thank you very much, it worked, my dear.”
I smiled as if she had handed me a newborn baby.
I wondered what “it” was. For sure, it was hard work, persistence, support of family (even her five-year-old helped her with the alphabet) and friends who constantly tested her and gave her time to study. I believe the optimism she brought to this country six years earlier served her well at this critical moment.
The day after the test, Samar proudly texted me again: “Thank you. Today I took an appointment with the doctor on my own and was able to give him the address. This knowledge taught me about it.”
Studying for the test, she had learned that the federal government has the power to declare war. As a U.S. citizen, Samar learned that she has power, too. She can communicate with confidence! Imagine the power this new American will feel when she registers to vote!
In retrospect, I believe the USCIS neglected to ask the most important question: “Can you tell me what it means to you to become an American citizen?” I asked Samar this question after she had time to relax and finally get a good night’s sleep.
She texted me the following reply:
“Safety and strength. I got rid of the word refugee, and most importantly I felt I could do something. This is a big dream……. And my children have stable passports and a recognized identity in all countries. I am very, very, very happy.”
I, too, am very, very, very happy and very, very, very proud that “We the People” now includes Samar.
Merrill Silver and her husband live in Montclair; she’s a freelance writer and teaches ESL at JVS of MetroWest. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Hadassah magazine, the Forward, the New York Jewish Week, and other publications. Find her at merrillsilver.wordpress.com