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April 27, 2018   |   By The New York Community Trust
Hands On Lessons in American History
NEW AMERICANS: With our funding, the New-York Historical Society offers free classes to help green card holders prepare for the exam to become citizens. Photo by Ari Mintz for The Trust

NEW AMERICANS: With our funding, the New-York Historical Society offers free classes to help green card holders prepare for the exam to become citizens. Photo by Ari Mintz for The Trust

On a chilly spring day, Sara Sadati takes three subways from her apartment in Queens to the New-York Historical Society on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.

She is eager to become an American citizen—so she is learning about U.S. history.

Sadati, 45, enters a third-floor gallery with her husband, Ali Forouz , 49, and eight men and women from Albania, Argentina, Australia, Ghana, Guatemala, Japan, Mexico, and Turkey. They gaze at an 1859 oil painting of a slave family, and soon they’re discussing the equal-protection clause of the 14th Amendment.

This is not casual conversation. It’s a free class to prepare for the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services’ Naturalization Test, the last hurdle to becoming an American citizen. The Trust helps fund 12 two-hour classes.

For Sadati, the test will be the culmination of years of agonizing decisions about leaving a Middle Eastern country. In high school, administrators made her wear a hijab. They also scolded her because she had an ear piercing—an affront to fundamentalist clerics. A few years later, she tried to publish a book of poems. Censors changed the title, threw out several poems, and altered others.

“One poem was about possibilities for our country after the Iran-Iraq war,” she says, “but they added a line to make it about Israel interfering in Palestinian territories.”

Sadati and Forouz taught pharmacy courses at a medical college in their country. “We lived a comfortable life, with everything we needed,” Sadati says. But they wanted their seven-year-old son to have a high-quality education and freedom of expression. Five years ago, they immigrated to the U.S. and moved in with an uncle in Kew Gardens. Then Sadati won the green card lottery, signifying permanent residency.

As the class members get acquainted, they share reasons why they want to become citizens. “The U.S. administration put a travel ban on everyone from our country, even those of us who disagreed with the regime there,” says Sadati, “and by becoming American citizens, we’ll be able to travel back and forth to visit our parents.”

Another morning, the class focuses on the European settlement of America. As students walk the marble corridors, it quickly becomes clear what sets the program apart. The instructor, Jennifer Young, asks: “Why did Europeans come to the United States?” Rather than spoon-feed an answer, Young directs the class to a piece of history—a stark, 1867 oil painting titled “Pilgrims Going to Church.” While examining the work, the students discuss or crucial citizenship test why the Puritans fled to North America, what they left behind, and what challenges they met.

Young says the secret to passing the naturalization test is intensive studying. The oral exam includes 10 civics questions randomly drawn from a list of 100 that spans topics from American history and geography to the Bill of Rights. This year-old course, called the Citizenship Project, has served students from 71 countries, speaking 35 languages. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was so moved after reading about the program that she came to the museum to preside over a naturalization ceremony.

In coming weeks, the class will visit galleries for more memorable lessons. A stain left by a wine glass on a Louisiana Purchase document will inspire a discussion about Manifest Destiny. A railing from the original Federal Hall in Lower Manhattan, where George Washington delivered his first inaugural address, will help participants visualize America’s first president. And a beaver pelt helps them understand European interest in 17th century North America.

“By looking at pieces of history,” Forouz says, “we can sense what happened in America more than by simply reading a textbook.”

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