It all started about four years ago with my friend Prasanna Vengadam the founder of South Asian American Voices For Impact Michigan (SAAVI-MI) asking me to help at a workshop she was involved in. I jumped at the chance to help immigrants in my community. At the workshop I found great fulfillment doing my part to help people by being a local voice that explained and simplified the process. As a former physician, who worked in many regions of India and Southeast Asia, it comes naturally to me to connect with people both in terms of language and culture. It was busy, fun and fulfilling work and I found myself volunteering for the next workshop and the next and so on.
When it came time for my daughter to apply for citizenship, she chose to come to Michigan and attend a workshop too. I got an up-close and personal look at her anxiety at attempting the application and the relief and joy she felt when the SAAVI volunteers helped her through it. It made me truly appreciate the value of the work we were doing. Ever since, I’ve been hooked on SAAVI’s naturalization work. Soon I went from signing up to help in workshops to arranging and managing them.
Now at SAAVI, I am in charge of all outreach efforts and we make an effort to meet immigrants where they are. Most days I go to temples in Detroit to connect with Indian-Americans and let them know of the SAAVI workshops. These visits have been eye-opening. Most people I speak with know very little about the value of citizenship. Some seniors do not even realize they are eligible to apply – let alone understand the process of how to do so. Once the process is explained to them, they jump at the chance to become U.S. citizens.
Of the dozens of people we’ve helped, one particular case stands out for me. I went to ISSO Temple in Pontiac, Michigan to introduce SAAVI’s citizenship classes to a group of seniors. Fifteen people signed up immediately. They had been lawful permanent residents (LPRs) for years, but having received little or no primary education, they knew very little about citizenship. They were eager to learn about U.S. history and the naturalization process. SAAVI understood their educational needs and how to guide them through the process.
SAAVI helped all 15 seniors with their applications and regularly reached out to them to see if they needed further assistance. Many were worried that immigration officials would be rude or reject their applications, so before every interview, we made sure to calm their anxieties and prepare them for a successful outcome. As of now, 14 of these seniors have passed their interviews and are very proud to be American citizens while one is still waiting for her interview notice. For these immigrants, citizenship was a life-changing accomplishment, and SAAVI helped put it within reach.
I promote SAAVI’s activities in every forum I have for interaction with immigrants. For example, I teach diabetic Personal Action Toward Health (PATH) classes, an educational workshop that empowers people to take an active role in managing their health. While teaching a class at a senior center in Michigan I learned that many of the seniors I was teaching – most of whom were 55 years and older – were eligible for citizenship but hesitant to apply. I told them about SAAVI and the citizenship classes we offer and explained naturalizing and the benefits that come with it, including the ability to travel freely to and from India and easier access to Medicaid and Supplemental Security Income (SSI).
Yasmin, an Orthodox Muslim Kashmiri woman, wanted to apply, but she was nervous about answering the citizenship test questions. However, once we explained the application process and emphasized that the test could be taken in her mother tongue, nothing held her back from applying. We also had all our citizenship materials translated to Kashmiri so that she could easily study for her citizenship test. Now she – along with 10 other seniors from India, Albania and China who attended the PATH classes – have been sworn in as U.S. citizens.
My time working with SAAVI has been incredibly fulfilling and I look to the future confident that from here on we will do more and better. Citizenship is not just a desired status; it is a critical step in the integration of these wonderful people into their communities, and essential for the success of our democratic process of government.
Little did I know four years ago that what started out as a single afternoon of volunteering would soon turn into my very own passion project supporting immigrants from around the world on their path to becoming new Americans.
Mohana Walambe is a board member of South Asian American Voices For Impact Michigan.
**If you are interested in volunteering with the New Americans Campaign, contact a local partner near you.