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Literacy Volunteers citizenship program grows during pandemic

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Havva Mohammad Zadeh stands with Ronna Gray in May 2022 on the Downtown Mall. Zadeh worked with Gray, a tutor through Literacy Volunteers Charlottesville/Albemarle, to prepare for her citizenship interview. She passed the interview and became a citizen recently.

When Havva Mohammad Zadeh became a U.S. citizen earlier this year, the moment itself was anticlimactic.

She spent more than a year preparing for the test, but the actual oath ceremony in Fairfax was quick. She took the oath during Ramadan, so she had to be back in Charlottesville quickly and couldn’t celebrate as much as she would’ve liked.

She gets another opportunity to celebrate Monday, though, when she is scheduled to take the oath of citizenship at Monticello’s naturalization ceremony.

“I’m happy because right now I am part of this country,” said Zadeh, who immigrated to this country from Afghanistan with her husband and four children in 2016.

After living five years in the U.S., Zadeh was eligible to apply for citizenship. When she needed to start studying, she turned to the team at Literacy Volunteers Charlottesville/Albemarle for her help. The local nonprofit helps immigrants become citizens for several years through group classes, one-on-one tutoring and practice interviews. During the pandemic, the organization retooled its classes, moved them online and saw participation double.

Literacy Volunteers works to help adults learn to read primarily through one-on-one tutoring. McCall said that many of those adults are immigrants or refugees.

Zadeh is one of 69 students of Literacy Volunteers who have passed the citizenship test in the last year. In the fiscal year before the pandemic, 19 of the organization’s students passed, said Catherine McCall, the citizenship coordinator for Literacy Volunteers.

For Zadeh, the most difficult aspect of the citizenship test was learning English. Literacy Volunteers, especially tutor Ronna Gray, helped her learn the ins and outs of English.

“I was lucky to have Ronna and the class,” she said.

The two met for about two hours a week to talk, go over vocabulary words and read news articles. Both women said two hours was not enough for them, as they often got carried away.

“Sometimes I have to say, ‘OK, Havva, we have to read now,’” Gray said. “Havva always makes me laugh. I learn something from her every week. It’s been an education for me.”

The citizenship test also includes 10 questions about U.S. history and government. The class goes over 100 potential questions and their answers. Potential citizens have to answer six of the 10 correctly in order to pass. The text also includes a reading and writing component as well as a section on speaking and listening in English.

Zadeh said she liked studying for the civics questions because she wanted to learn about the country she was joining.

“She’s not just learning English to pass the test,” Gray added. “She’s learning English to really find out about the United States.”

For Zadeh, the citizenship test is just one of several items on her to-do list. She’s already a certified nursing assistant and is studying for the GED exam. Her goal is to be a pediatric nurse.

Now that she’s a citizen, Zadeh said she’s excited to vote.

Participation in the nonprofit’s citizenship classes is continuing to increase. In the fall session, 10 new students participated. In the winter session, 18 new students enrolled. In the spring session, there were 27 new students.

“It’s really been a big growth for us,” McCall said. “We’re super excited to have so many of our students working on this goal, and that we’re able to help so many of them achieve it.”

McCall said that after switching to Zoom and expanding the number of classes offered, students from throughout Virginia started participating in the citizenship classes. The citizenship program is funded by private donations.

“Switching over to Zoom has made an enormous difference,” McCall said, adding the online format provided greater flexibility for people juggling work or child care.

McCall said she’s hoping to start an in-person class in the fall, but the Zoom options will likely remain.

“A lot of our students don’t have computers at home,” she said. “Some of our students are taking our classes on a phone.”

Gray has been volunteering since 2012.

“So it’s something that I’ve known that I have enjoyed and I believe in the mission of Literacy Volunteers,” she said. “I like giving back to the community. I like meeting all kinds of different people. It’s been both fun and an education and just a lot of really good things about it.”

The organization is in need of volunteers who can help tutor students. Training is available for those who are interested. For more information, go to literacyforall.org.

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Katherine Knott is the K-12 education reporter for The Daily Progress. Contact her at (434) 422-7398, kknott@dailyprogress.com, or @knott_katherine on Twitter.

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