Making New Americans

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John Schmelzer leads the citizenship class at the Bender JCC, Photo by Lisa Traiger

For the past five years, John Schmelzer has spent two hours of his Tuesday mornings at the Bender Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington, helping people become Americans.

In the citizenship class he leads, Schmelzer practices English with students, quizzes them on basic U.S. history, geography and government, and shares the ins-and-outs of the naturalization process.

To become a U.S. citizen, one must have permanent residency — a green card — for five years, not travel outside of the United States for more than six months, be over age 18, submit the in-depth 20-page government form N-400, pay the $740 fee, take a civics exam, go through an interview to demonstrate the ability to speak and understand English, as well as take dictation of simple English sentences.

The process can be arduous for many, who often take the nine-week class at least twice, said Schmelzer, a retired lawyer who worked for more than 40 years with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

“My parents were immigrants,” he said. “I grew up in an immigrant household. My father and mother came over in 1940 … so I have an affinity for the immigrant experience.”

His students have most often been from Russia and, frequently, they are grandparents resettling with children who immigrated earlier — the desire to become full citizens and have a say in the democratic process is the same.

He estimates that over the past five years, he has seen 50 of his students become U.S. citizens.

Schmelzer doesn’t confine his work with his students to Tuesdays. On Wednesdays, he offers a Zoom-only English class for those who need extra help with conversational skills. Then when a student is ready to apply, he will spend additional time in the evening, working independently over the telephone preparing the applicant for the interview and test. Together they’ll practice the questions and even the small talk that the interviewer makes during the 20- to 40-minute session.

“The [process] is expensive,” he pointed out. “I don’t want to see anyone not succeed.”

“Whoever is interviewing you,” he recently advised his students, who sat attentively with notebooks open to jot down his advice, “they want to be sure that you understand English and are ready to participate in being a citizen.”

He starts many of his sessions with small talk, has students interview and question each other about hobbies and grandchildren, and notes, wryly, that even the grandparent generation relies on handy smart-phone translation apps when they get stuck on a word.

Over his five years, Schmelzer has taught a United Nations of students. While his current class has just four students, he said before the pandemic classes were larger.

Demographics, too, shift, sometimes depending on world politics and conflicts. As do the questions: Last month, he had the students pull out their notecards to update the names of the governor of Maryland and the speaker of the house, due to recent elections.

This current class has one Russian and two Ukrainian grandmothers and a grandfather from Armenia. They asked not to be named due to privacy concerns. They’re retired — one was a computer scientist; one, a science professor; and two, former accountants. None are Jewish. Schmelzer noted that usually he has at least a few Jewish students.

At the Bender JCC, “probably 40 percent of students have been Russian,” he said. “I’ve had a least a couple of Chinese, Iranians, other Eastern Europeans, especially Armenians and Ukrainians, and people from Haiti, Cuba, Bolivia and Chile — and Israelis.”

Because this citizenship class meets during the day, Schmelzer primarily sees an older generation of students who move to the U.S. in retirement to be with their already-established children. Family reunification is an important path to citizenship and he is happy to help reunite families, in particular so older parents don’t have to age without family support in their home country.

When a student becomes a citizen, there’s always a celebration at the next class. Schmelzer brings in a sheet cake decorated with an American flag and the class peppers the new citizen with questions about the citizenship interview, what the building looked like, how long the wait was, what questions were asked — so they’ll be less nervous when their time comes.

“Can you imagine being 50 or 60 years old or older and leaving your country, your life, to start over here, learn a new language, not have your friends close by?” he said. “They’re an amazing group of people.” ■

Lisa Traiger is WJW’s arts correspondent.

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