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Citizenship Classes are Rooted in Community

 “I would say for myself personally, I would not have passed this interview prior to studying or teaching this class,” Habie Timbo said, speaking to the challenges her students face in the process to become U.S. citizens.

While most of her time at World Relief Quad Cities is dedicated to her role as a caseworker for the Immigrant Family Resource program, the remainder is spent instructing citizenship classes. Some agencies that work with immigrants and refugees in Illinois do so through organizations like ICIRR (Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights) and are required to host citizenship classes through the New Americans Initiative, or NAI. But for Habie Timbo, teaching citizenship classes goes beyond just fulfilling a requirement – it’s one of her “favorite parts about [her] job.”

Timbo has been teaching citizenship classes since she started at World Relief in 2019, receiving training from the USCIS and a Chicago-based Adult Learning Resource Center. The intricacies of the process were startling at first.  

“Citizenship isn’t just a written test, there is a verbal interview to pass . . . students are required to study 100 Civics questions from U.S. history, as well as demonstrate their ability to read, write, and have conversations in English,” she said.

Timbo is no stranger to paperwork and lengthy applications, but the “very long” N-400 application students submit prior to the interview is the “most difficult document she has ever encountered in her life.” Had she not received the appropriate training, Timbo said she would have struggled to complete the N-400 by herself, even with her undergrad in International Studies.

A sense of respect for those ready to take on the challenge is at the root of her determination to help students feel as prepared as possible. In her 7-week citizenship courses, she helps students build the study skills, English skills, and communication skills that are crucial not just to the interview, but to the rest of their lives.

Timbo’s classroom is filled with people from all walks of life. Individual education levels vary across different age groups and cultural backgrounds, and many of the students are parents with children, full-time jobs, or equally important obligations. Each student has their own unique obstacles; sometimes, a little extra empathy is required.

“You have to be very mindful with the places that people are at and be really flexible with your expectations at times. . . sometimes when you see less dedication than you want, it can be difficult, but [it’s important] to just have flexibility and grace,” Timbo said.

Prior to taking the course, one of Timbo’s students had to return to her country of origin due to a death in the family. Her time spent outside of the U.S. resulted in the rejection of her application and interview despite having passed each section – a cautionary tale about understanding immigration laws which led to an unbreakable bond.

 “It worked out, but that student worked so hard in my class. I was so proud of her. . . I got to learn so much about her story and her experiences that it’s really impacted me. I built a lifelong friend with a refugee where it’s like, we’re worlds apart, but we’re in the same place, so it’s really awesome,” she continued.

Timbo’s aspiration to put herself in others’ shoes no matter where they’re coming from is a source of hope, encouragement, and positive energy for struggling students. The opportunity to see her them grow and overcome their barriers is its own reward, and the extra effort is something that stays with them as they progress in life.

“The most rewarding part is when students come back later and tell you, ‘I have my citizenship, we’re citizens,’” she said.

Individuals attempting to gain citizenship take on the challenge because they want to feel valued by their community. In helping students realize that everyone is a “lifelong learner,” Timbo also helps them feel less alienated and gain the confidence to “solidify their place in society” once they complete the course.

And the ultimate outcome of those weeks of studying – citizenship – couldn’t be more important. Becoming a citizen grants the right to vote and actively participate in civic engagement.

“It’s really important that we have immigrant populations that are voting for candidates, that are voting on bills, that are voting for the rights of Americans, because we want their voices to be heard, and we don’t want [these] groups to be kind of a silent minority in our community,” she continued.

And those who become citizens often expand their impact by finding other ways to give back. In the past, Timbo’s students have volunteered to teach citizenship classes, and many of them have chosen to continue their educations so they can become guides for future generations of New Americans. It’s a chain of accomplishment and multiplicity.

“This process is not easy. As Americans, we are very privileged to not know what it’s like to have to justify everything about who you are and speak to everything you’ve done. . . it’s hard work, and we definitely should commend and raise up these individuals,” she concluded.

Written by Erica Parrigin

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