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Laura Seitz, Deseret News
Khim Ly writes the names of her children at the English Skills Learning Center in Glendale Middle School in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Oct. 9, 2013. Ly and her classmates are studying for the citizenship test. The English Skills Learning Center, which has provided free English language instruction to underserved immigrants in Salt Lake County since 1988, has been awarded a $250,000 federal grant to help refugees and other immigrants prepare for the citizenship test. The grant was awarded by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
Most of the people we work with are low-income families. If you fail the test, you get one more try. Then you have to pay to take it again. There’s a lot at stake for someone to do this. —Catherine Barnhart, executive director of the English Skills Learning Center

SALT LAKE CITY — It's crunch time for Bhutanese refugees Shiva and Pratima Gurung.

They're scheduled to take their citizenship tests in three weeks. Because of the tight deadline, the married couple are enrolled in two preparation classes to nail down what they need to know for the upcoming exam.

In a classroom adjacent to the lunchroom at Glendale Middle School, Linda Tippets, a volunteer with the English Skills Learning Center, is teaching and quizzing them and three other students about the U.S. territories, names of Native American tribes in the United States and the significance of Independence Day. Students also read aloud and practice writing.

At the end of class Wednesday, Tippets paused to tell her students about her previous group of students.

"Everyone graduated and everyone became citizens. We'll get you there," she said.

Recently, the Salt Lake City-area nonprofit agency was awarded a two-year, $250,000 grant from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to help prepare another 400 refugees and immigrants for their citizenship test. The center is also partnering with Catholic Community Services to offer naturalization application services to 500 permanent residents.

The English Skills Learning Center is one of 40 organizations nationwide to receive an award from the competitive Citizenship and Integration Grant Program. The center also received a two-year, $200,000 grant from USCIS in 2011.

The center far exceeded the expectation that it would serve 300 students over the two-year period, which likely helped it compete for the grant renewal, said citizenship coordinator Ahmad Afzali.

"The past seven quarters, we had 290 people who were involved in citizenship classes, and we had 635 who got eligibility screening by Catholic Community Services. They also submitted 385 citizenship applications," Afzali said.

One of the advantages of partnering with Catholic Community Services is that its immigration attorneys are often able to obtain fee waivers for people applying for citizenship, said Catherine Barnhart, executive director of the English Skills Learning Center.

The fee is $680, which allows applicants to take the test up to two times if they fail on the first attempt. Those who cannot receive waivers must save up for the opportunity.

"Most of the people we work with are low-income families. If you fail the test, you get one more try. Then you have to pay to take it again. There’s a lot at stake for someone to do this," Barnhart said.

Refugees need to pass the citizenship test within seven years of their arrival in the United States to qualify for certain government benefits. Refugees and other legal residents must live in the country for five years to be eligible to apply.

The citizenship test includes civics questions, but it is also an English test. People who take the test must demonstrate they can speak, write and read English.

"I feel like English is so important for so many reasons — getting a job, helping you take care of your kids, your daily life. But getting your citizenship is really special, especially if you don't have a country to go back to. I think we take for granted how it feels to have a country," Barnhart said.

The center, which started in a home on Salt Lake City's west side in 1988, offers six programs ranging from one-on-one tutoring to teaching English in the workplace. The center helps provide instruction at The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' Humanitarian Center.

With the exception of workplace instruction, classes are taught by volunteers, who are trained by the center's staff. English classes are provided free of charge and offered at sites scattered across the county.

The volunteers range from some highly motivated high school students to people in retirement.

"They pay $50 to take the training, so they're really invested," Barnhart said.

Some 1,200 refugees are resettled in Utah every year, so there is an ongoing need for new volunteers to teach English. Volunteers undergo 12 hours of training and then are paired with a staff member who mentors them. Volunteer training is offered every month except December and July.

Tippets said she took the training to teach English a couple of years after being encouraged by a friend to try it.

"I've had students from all countries and all walks of life. They're all very grateful for the help," she said.

Barnhart said many volunteers become very attached to their students, and they relish their success when they obtain their citizenship. Tippets attended the ceremony when six of her students were granted their citizenship.

"We are providing a service. We teach people English. But we are also creating an opportunity for our volunteers to have an incredibly engaging experience," Barnhart said.

"It's just a wonderful mutual learning experience. Our volunteers tell us repeatedly how much this experience changes their lives," she said.

The Gurungs say obtaining their citizenship will have lifelong benefits for them and their children.

Asked if she was nervous about the upcoming exam, Pratima Gurung said, "Yeah, a little."

But she said she and her husband are willing to commit to intensive study to become U.S. citizens.

"Anything we need to do to do it, we will do it," she said.

Email: marjorie@deseretnews.com