Magazine article The New Yorker

Citizens in Training

Magazine article The New Yorker

Citizens in Training

Article excerpt

Citizens in Training

One of the many organizations thrown into chaos last week because of the Trump Administration's travel ban was the Arab-American Family Support Center, in Brooklyn. "It's been incredibly hectic," Ambreen Qureshi, the center's deputy executive director, said recently. Her office had been inundated with stories of anti-Muslim harassment and travel emergencies. "A lot of anxiety, a lot of worry, stress, tension," she said.

There were subtler challenges, such as figuring out how to explain the travel ban to people who had come to the A.A.F.S.C. to study for the U.S.-citizenship exam. Volunteers spend weeks drilling the students on American rights and values, such as freedom of religion. They lead field trips to the Statue of Liberty. Qureshi said, "It's very hard for us to reconcile what we're teaching them with what's actually happening on the ground."

The heating had stopped working at the A.A.F.S.C.'s offices. Nevertheless, three classrooms and the kitchen were packed with people in winter coats, who had come for free English lessons.

The citizenship-exam study group was huddled in the hallway. There were nine young women, all but one from Yemen. Their English was shaky, so A.A.F. S.C. volunteers and staff helped translate; among these was a Manhattan-based psychotherapist, who'd come to help after reading about Trump's executive order. The women explained that they were all green-card holders. None of them had jobs; they were dependent on husbands or male relatives who worked in bodegas, as taxi-drivers, or as janitors. One woman had brought her toddler. Eight wore a hijab, and one also wore a niqab, or face veil. She carried a notebook that said "Nacho Girl," over a picture of nachos and cheese.

It was time to practice. One of the A.A.F. S.C. volunteers, Amy Bonanno, a retired producer of TV commercials, asked the women questions that they might hear from an immigration agent.

"Why are you here today?" she asked.

"I'm here today for my citizenship interview," a woman with braces, wearing a hijab in a faux Burberry plaid, replied.

"Why do you want to become a citizen?"

"Because I want to vote."

"Very nice," Bonanno said. "Lovely." She turned to a shy woman in a leopard-print hijab. "Heba, have you ever been declared legally incompetent or confined to a mental institution?"

"No. …

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