To help guide Chicago’s immigrant community through a process that can often be regarded as overwhelming and expensive, Arab American Family Services, working in conjunction with other immigrant and refugee organizations, hosted a citizenship workshop Saturday.
Open to anyone who walked through the doors, but geared toward Illinois’ Arab immigrants, the event was held at Stagg High School in Palos Hills, a neighboring community of Bridgeview. Approximately 13 miles southwest of the Chicago Loop, Bridgeview is home to Illinois’ largest Arab-Muslim community and two Islamic schools that collectively educate more than 800 students. Arab Americans make up 7 percent of Bridgeview’s population, according to a 2000 study from the U.S. Census Bureau.
At more than 85,000, Illinois is home to the nation’s seventh largest population of Arab Americans, according to a 2009 study by the Census Bureau.
Kicking off at 9 a.m. the free workshop featured stations that guided immigrants through the citizenship application (Form N-400) process, which can often be costly as legal consultation is necessary and the the citizenship application itself costs $680 to process.
Applicants received a free legal review from volunteer lawyers, assistance filling out the citizenship application, assistance with the fee waiver (Form I-912), when low-income criteria was met, and photo services. Upon leaving the workshop, the applications were sent for processing and applicants were provided with information on English and classes to help them prepare for the citizenship exam. Arabic, Spanish and Chinese translators were on-hand for non-English speaking individuals.
“I love this country, everything is easier here; my life is almost perfect, but I’m not a citizen,” said Shirin Hasan, 29. Born in Jordan, Hasan has lived in Burbank with her husband and four children for nine years.
Although it took her three years to learn English, Hasan had her first child within the first year of living in Chicagoland; she said navigating the hospital system was very difficult.
“I got pregnant very fast and I didn’t know anything,” she said. “I didn’t drive, I only spoke Arabic, and my husband tried to learn me everything, but he works and it was very difficult.”
Hasan said after nine years, it’s finally time to apply for citizenship. “I have a driver’s license, I help my kids with their homework, my husband is a citizen, my kids are citizens and it’s time for me to be, too.”
Part of a monthly series of citizenship workshops held in various immigrant communities throughout Chicagoland, Saturday’s event was put together through a collaboration of Arab American Family Services (AAFS), Interfaith Leadership Project (ILP), Chinese American Service League (CASL), Proyecto de Accion de los Suburbios del Oeste or West Suburban Action Project (PASO), and the Instituto del Progreso Latino (IDPL).
The collaborating immigrant advocacy groups operate the events under the IIllinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights' New Americans Initiative, a non-profit partnership with the State of Illinois to provide free citizenship workshops.
“We’re trying to create a safe place for immigrants to receive help,” said Hamza Salim, 26, immigration and New American Initiative coordinator for Arab American Family Services. “There is a lot of mistrust for government and social services amongst the Arab community ... We see a lot of immigrants getting taken advantage of because they go through their neighbor instead of a legitimate organization for citizenship, and after they’ve spent thousands of dollars and have waited three years, they’re still not citizens when the process should only take about six months and cost $680.”
Salim, who was born in Jordan and moved to Chicago two weeks after 9/11, said the biggest problem organizations like Arab American Family Services face is establishing trust as a social service agency, and getting the community to participate.
“We need to have better outreach and education for the Arab community, I’ve seen so many clients who have waited until it’s too late to seek out our services,” he said.
At least one volunteer at Saturday’s event thought the workshop was an invaluable service for Chicago’s immigrant communities.
“I feel their pain; it looks like getting citizenship is the ultimate dream for everyone,” said Evan Saadat, 29. An electrical engineer who was born in the United States but raised in Syria, Saadat came back to Chicago at 17 years of age and now lives in Irving Park.
Saadat was one of approximately 60 volunteers who helped at the event with application assistance, translation services and details, such as directing the flow of traffic. When providing application assistance, he said walking through the paperwork could take anywhere between 40 minutes to an hour per applicant. Most of the volunteers attended a four-hour training session earlier in the month.
“I didn’t speak any English when I came to this country, if I had known about workshops and things like this when I first came here, it would’ve been a huge help,” he said.
Here's a look at some of the activities and people who utilized the services offered at the immigration workshop:
In addition to Saturday’s citizenship workshop, Arab American Family Services also hosted the 5th Annual Walk in Faith Not in Fear, Breast Cancer and Domestic Violence Awareness Walk. Held on Stagg’s track and field, registration for the awareness walk was $20, with the funds supporting Arab American Family Services’ programs.
The next New Americans Initiative citizenship workshop is November 10 in Cicero at the Our Lady of the Mount church.