CATHOLIC HERALD STAFF
Programs throughout the Milwaukee area afford refugees and immigrants an opportunity to attain citizenship, and with citizenship comes the freedom to travel and receive public benefits, and for many, the ability to wholly provide for one’s family.
After five years of residence in the United States, an individual is eligible to apply for citizenship. It takes six months on average from the time someone submits an application to the moment they sit for their interview.
The citizenship interview includes reading aloud a sentence about civics or American history, transcribing a dictated sentence about civics or American history, answering a series of questions about one’s personal history, and correctly answering six of 10 questions concerning American history and government. Graham Vogt, who studied economics in college, admits some of the questions give him some difficulty: How many amendments does the Constitution have? What is the supreme law of the land? Answers many Americans google.
Catholic Charities offers multiple programs to assist those seeking citizenship, including Be Frienders and citizenship classes. Both are “building a way to integrate Milwaukee,” said Vogt, who now works with Catholic Charities Milwaukee through Jesuit Volunteer Corps.
“We are not just here to teach but here to help neighbors get to know one another,” he said.
When the old system was not working effectively, Catholic Charities adopted a new system: offering classes in people’s homes.
The integration model Catholic Charities uses is built on a one-to-one learning approach. Volunteers are matched with learners, individuals who are studying for their citizenship test. By the nature of the programs, “we want people to find partnerships,” Vogt said.
Catholic Charities, under the direction of Claire Reuning, created an extensive citizenship preparatory workbook that walks the learner through citizenship objectives and provides practice questions.
Catholic Charities currently has 50 learners in the program from the following countries: Burma, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Mexico, Nigeria, Somalia, Sudan and Thailand.
The program “equips people who want to become citizens and provides encouragement in a one-on-one specialized approach,” Vogt said, and the program allows volunteers to “gain the rich benefits of learning from someone else.”
Another program housed within the archdiocese is run out of St. Rose and St. Michael Parish, a parish devoted to meeting the needs of its parishioners, many of whom come from refugee camps in Thailand to live in Milwaukee.
The individuals St. Michael and St. Rose Literacy Program serve are often pre-literate, meaning they have not been taught in their native language and do not have prior skills of reading and writing. Specifically, some basic skills needed are learning to hold a pencil, since printing in Karen and Karenni, languages spoken and written by most of the people in this program, is very circular and a whole different system than English.
Deborah Lindberg, the current program coordinator, created curriculum in 2014 and lessons for daily living and medical needs that volunteers use when working with ESL learners in the program.
“Working with this program has helped me to have appreciation of the culture that they are coming from, in not having a lot of the comforts of the United States. It makes me have more of an appreciation for all of these things that I have lived with all of my life: a job, education, the ease of daily living,” said Lindberg.
The refugee camps have no running water, no electricity, Lindberg said, and “there are so many things they [learners in the program] have to learn. They have done tremendous things moving to the United States.”
Right now, there are 25 students in the citizenship class through St. Michael and St. Rose Literacy Program, with 14 individuals who recently passed the test and are now citizens of the United States.
To learn more about the programs and how to volunteer, visit ccmke.org and stmichael-strose.org/esl-program.