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Outreach To The Lowell Immigrant Community By Saheli

Gouri Banerjee

On Sunday, June 6th, Rita Shah, Program Coordinator of Economic Independence projects for Saheli, Friendship for South Asian Women, spoke at a community outreach celebration in Lowell. She noted that English as a Second Language (ESL) classes offered by Saheli, started in Burlington in the year 2000 with a total of four students. In June 2004 the classes have grown to over sixty students in Lowell. Additional classes are offered in Enfield, CT. English language training has been expanded creatively to include training for the citizenship examination. Coming soon to Lowell, are two more classes: the written drivers education test, and ESL with job search and resume writing classes.

Rita Shah paid special tributes to Rita and Arthur Ramalho, the Directors of the Senior Center, senior teacher Pratima Srinivasan and two volunteer teachers. These dedicated volunteers, she noted, make it possible to offer free classes to a large community of South Asian and Spanish immigrants. A severe cutback in state funding for adult education has left many groups of adults without the means to gain useful skills to enter the workforce. Dynamic social work groups like Saheli have risen to the challenge of filling the gaps. Shah noted that when a single person gains US citizenship, the net benefit extends to many members within the family, both in the US and in India,

Currently, Saheli offers ESL and citizenship classes in Lowell on Tuesday, Wednesday and Sunday. For details about new classes and class schedules go to www.saheliboston.org. Men and women of all nationalities and ethnic groups are welcome to join the free classes in which each session runs for twelve weeks. The classes are funded by a grant from the Haymarket Peoples Fund.

The morning ended with a presentation by immigration attorney Monica Modi Khant of Vakili Legal, a volunteer at Saheli. Modi Khant made several important points. She pointed out that the new citizenship exam is entirely verbal, and aspiring citizens have to write just one sentence in English. The most popular sentence appears to be “I love America!” The average wait time between filing the application for citizenship and getting a call for an interview is roughly 8 months in Boston. If you pass the interview, you wait another two months for the oath ceremony. Finally you get a US passport.

Modi Khant said that while you are waiting for the interview call, you can travel overseas as a regular green card holder. She suggested that for people whose English skills are limited, watching American TV, especially the news broadcasts is very helpful; most Americans speak very fast, and sometimes the interview can be overwhelming for non-native English speakers. She also suggested that the verbal interview can be tricky; sometimes the interviewers, themselves are not Caucasian Americans, and they may have accents that are hard to follow. Thorough preparation is the key to success. If you fail the test, you get a second try 4-6 months later. Modi Khant urged those who may have a civil or criminal conviction, or some complex legal situation, to hire an attorney to accompany them to the citizenship interview. Modi Khant has accompanied over 100 South Asians to citizenship interviews and for a modest fee can coach and prepare you well. For most people who speak English confidently, an attorney is not required. Finally, she noted that if you have been a green card holder for over 20 years and are over the age of 50, you may be accompanied by a translator of your choice.

The community outreach event concluded with a generous lunch donated by Bombay Mahal in Lowell.

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