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Classes at library helping immigrants become citizens go online

Gilda Ramos, a librarian at Middle Country Public Library in Centereach, spoke to Newsday on Thursday about the citizenship class that has been shifted online because of the coronavirus pandemic. Credit: Newsday / Staff; Skype

Irving Cardenas fled from his home in Venezuela — a country in socioeconomic and political upheaval — six years ago, leaving behind friends, family and a once-thriving business.

All he sought was safety, Cardenas says, together with his wife, Carmen Alicia Romero de Cardenas.

Now, they live in Centereach, more than 2,400 miles from the rising crime and starvation rates that have afflicted his home country for nearly a decade.

And at Middle Country Public Library, Cardenas, 67, and his wife found not only safety, but a welcoming community and a citizenship preparation course to help them become United States citizens, he said.

“My wife and I came here to start a new life,” Cardenas said. “The time has come for us to take these final steps and become citizens.”

Cardenas and his wife are eligible to apply for naturalization, since they have lived here for six years and applicants need to have at least five years as permanent residents, according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

After paying fees that can run up to more than $700, applicants then submit various documents and fingerprints, said Gilda Ramos, Middle Country Public librarian and coordinator of the citizenship prep course at the library.

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Once the preliminary tasks are complete, an applicant lands an interview, one of the final steps in the long process, which includes an English and civics test on the country’s history, government and geography.

That is where the library’s course comes in handy — students practice their English skills while studying together for the 100-question civics exam. They will be asked 10 questions on the exam and need to answer six correctly.

“This country opened its doors and offered us freedom, opportunities to grow professionally and personally, and a very good quality of life,” Cardenas said. “For those reasons, we want to become citizens.”

In 2019, the library helped 12 students pass their English and civics exams and acknowledged their achievement in an annual celebration in June.

Because of the coronavirus crisis, the naturalization interviews and celebration have been postponed, Ramos said. Still, about 15 students taking the prep course continue to meet virtually and study, she said.

“All the students feel gratitude for the opportunities they get here and want so badly to become adopted sons and daughters of this country,” Ramos said.

The prep course is normally offered at the library from September through June, weekly for an hour and a half. Since the quarantine orders began in March, the course moved online, as did other essential services the library offers, like one-on-one meetings with a career adviser.

When deciding on which courses the library would continue to run and transition to an online platform, library director Sophia Serlis-McPhillips said she asked herself one question: “While people are at home, what are the services we offer that will keep them moving ahead and moving up?”

The citizenship prep course serves to help residents improve their life circumstances, Serlis-McPhillips said. “We didn’t want to stop the progress and momentum they had.”

Ramos recalled how special it’s been for her to witness the dozens of people that have taken the course over 25 years and become naturalized citizens.

“Every student that passes the exams feel so proud of themselves. They send us pictures, glowing next to the American flag,” Ramos said. “You can see their perspective on life changes once they become a citizen — they feel different, their families feel different.”

Cardenas said he left everything behind when he emigrated from Venezuela, but has been able to plant new roots on Long Island, starting medical equipment supply company Centereach Equipment and Supplies, LLC, and becoming part of his community.

“We would be so grateful to be able to exercise the rights of citizens and contribute to the democracy by voting,” Cardenas said of what keeps him motivated to continue taking the course. “Even in quarantine, the library gives me a chance to get better and keep in touch with the other students who have become great friends.”

Ramos said she feels honored to serve an integral role in a significant part of the students’ lives.

“To me, it’s such a privilege to help them because I know that they will have better opportunities in the future,” Ramos said. “Immigrants have this motivation inside of them to do well, to strive — and that’s what I see in these students. They want to be an example to their children.”

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