"I hereby declare"
With those words, Sally Basargin of the Russian Old Believer community of Razdolna came to the end of years of hard study and began the oath that would make her a U.S. citizen. They were uttered in an Anchorage courtroom Jan. 25, in unison with 30 other individuals who, like Sally, were born outside of the country, but have made the United States their home.
On Monday, Sally was back at work in a small room at Razdolna School, fine-tuning her English-speaking abilities. She was joined in the ESL, English as a Second Language, class by sisters-in-law Daria Basargin and Efrosinia Basargin, and Antanina Basargin, married to a cousin of the women's husbands.
The class is offered through Kachemak Bay Campus, Kenai Peninsula College-University of Alaska Anchorage. It is taught Monday afternoons by Jan Peyton, adult basic education coordinator and instructor, and Thursday afternoons by Lolita Brache, ABE instructor.
"We live here. We have to do this," said Sally of the women's commitment to become U.S. citizens.
Although their husbands were born in Alaska, the women are from Brazil and Bolivia.
Sally and her sister, Efracia, began studying for citizenship in 2003. At the time, Joseph Randolph was an ESL volunteer and helped them develop their knowledge of the English language by taking them on field trips to City Hall and the courthouse.
"Sally and her sister were very determined," Randolph said. "The students deserve a lot of credit. They have good resolve and a keen interest."
Efracia completed the process first. Sally's progress was slowed by the birth of two children. Efrosinia recently passed the citizenship exam and will go to Anchorage to be sworn in later this month. Antanina and Daria have not yet completed the requirements for citizenship, but are working toward that goal.
A moment-to-remember occurred Monday when Efrosinia completed paperwork to enroll in the ESL class. Given the forms' citizenship choices of "U.S." or "other," she momentarily held her pencil above the box indicating U.S.
"I can check this one," she said, her first declaration that, save for the swearing-in ceremony, she is a citizen of the United States.
"Easy" is how Sally and Efrosinia describe their journey to citizenship.
"People were saying it's scary, but to me, no," said Efrosinia.
Peyton knows the commitment required on their part, however.
"They might act like it's no big deal, but they worked hard," she said.
In September, a group of men and women from the three Russian Old Believer communities at the head of Kachemak Bay asked KBC for classes supporting the multi-step process to become citizens. The classes were held at Voznesenka School, a central location for students from Kachemak Selo and Razdolna. Robin Bronen of the Alaska Immigration Justice Project in Anchorage paid a visit, ensuring each individual was correctly following the required steps and properly completing the necessary paperwork.
Photos can be taken in Homer and mailed to Anchorage, but fingerprinting has to be done in Anchorage. The ability to speak and write English is required. A familiarity of the country's history and government is needed in order to pass a test comprised of 100 questions. Only six of the 100 are asked, but it's anybody's guess which six. An interview to verify that the person being tested is actually the applicant also is done in Anchorage, as is the test and the swearing-in ceremony.
Upon completion of the test, applicants are immediately told if they passed or not.
Asked about her response to learning she'd passed, Sally raised both hands on the air, her smile spreading across her face.
"I felt happy," she said.
The process to become a citizen isn't inexpensive. There's a $595 application fee, $85 to be fingerprinted and the women said they spent at least $100 for each trip to and from Anchorage. The students also paid $250 to have the assistance of the Alaska Immigration Justice Project.
With each of the students in the class that began in September at varying stages of obtaining citizenship, the focus is now on the ESL class at Razdolna. In addition to the four attending Monday, others come and go as schedules allow.
"These people are wonderful to work with. They're motivated and eager to learn," said Peyton, who has a degree in Russian. Brache is fluent in Spanish. "Between the two of us, that's very helpful."
For Peyton, the reward in teaching the citizenship and ESL classes is "seeing the lights go on in their eyes."
For Sally, the new citizen, it's the requirements completed, the test passed, the oath said and the smile on her face.
"You have to smile now," said Efrosinia to her sister-in-law.
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