By Tessa W. McKenzie
Our commitment to supporting newcomers is personal and at CLINIC, we are inspired by friends who have overcome numerous obstacles to become naturalized US citizens. Saba Hailu is one such friend, who journeyed from aspiring citizen to new American. Saba’s determination strengthens our resolve to ensure that the foreign-born have access to opportunities for citizenship and civic participation.
Saba arrived in the United States seven years ago as an asylee, fleeing political persecution in Ethiopia. “I am free here,” Saba explains, “I have improved my life.” Unable to find work in Ethiopia, Saba is now able to support her family, free from fear, and has built relationships in her community that make her feel at home in her new country. Saba provides child and elderly care and those who work with her speak highly of Saba’s contributions. Abeba Fesuh introduced fellow CLINIC staff member Laura Burdick to Saba over five years ago.
A true American in every way but legal status, Saba desired to become a citizen of the United States so she could vote, travel in and out of the country freely, and more fully contribute to her new home. “I wanted to feel as American as I had been,” Saba explains.
With English as her second language, however, Saba was nervous about passing the naturalization interview, and studied very hard in the months and weeks leading up to it. When asked about her status as an Ethiopian asylee, Saba froze. The United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) Officer told Saba to come back when she was able to pass the English portion of the interview. Disheartened, Saba feared her dream of U.S. citizenship might be out of reach.
“I want to thank Laura in a special way,” Saba says, “she offered her time to prepare me for a second interview.” Laura reviewed civics questions with Saba, asked her to write short answers, and memorize questions to expect during her next interview with USCIS. Many of the lessons occurred in the evenings after Saba’s babysitting commitments and were spent pouring over CLINIC resources designed to enhance English and civics proficiency.
Rattled with anxiety on the day of her second naturalization interview, Saba was comforted by the presence of CLINIC attorney, Allison Posner. “I am so thankful for Allison,” Saba says, “she gave me courage, smiled at me, and all of my fear was relieved.” Allison helped educate Saba about her asylum case and with renewed self-assurance, Saba passed her naturalization interview with flying colors.
With new-found confidence, Saba is thrilled to have received US citizenship and explains, “I really feel American now!” She is excited to share CLINIC resources like Citizenship for Us that Laura gave to her in preparation for the exam. “I have two sons that will soon become citizens,” Saba says, “and I tell them, ‘Don’t be afraid, study hard, prepare yourself. It’s possible!”
Saba’s story is a reminder that resources are needed to ensure that vulnerable newcomers may overcome various challenges to the naturalization process. CLINIC’s new study guide for the citizenship test is a free, online resource that explains the naturalization testing requirements and contains 13 study units on U.S. history and civics. With citizenship resources like this and the dedication of friends and advocates like Abeba, Laura, and Allison, more aspiring citizens may join Saba as proud new Americans.
*Tessa W. McKenzie is Public Education Officer at the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, Inc. (CLINIC)