The man was sitting outside Barnes and Noble, having just removed from a paper sack his newly purchased guide to taking the U.S. Citizenship test book. I, sitting across from him, noticed his slender black face, and his fingers turning the many pages. The book was thick. He was quiet, but I sensed he was overwhelmed.
It would be an intrusion to interrupt, but something in me compelled me to speak anyway. “I wish you well,” I said. He looked up, smiled, and said, “Thank you.” We were both quiet again. But then I asked, “Where are you from?” “Somalia,” he said, and then added, “There are so many questions in this book. How will I know which ones they will ask me?”
“You won’t know which ones, but they won’t ask all of them. Don’t let the book overwhelm you.” Not knowing how much of what I was saying he understood, I continued anyway, because his eyes indicated he did. “I suggest you read one or two pages every day. Then you will gain understanding and confidence.” He smiled broadly and replied, “Confidence, yes, confidence.”
Now we were engaged in conversation—at least as we were able, two strangers, sitting on benches outside of Barnes and Noble. He was waiting for his brother who was still in the store, already a U.S. citizen. I was waiting for my husband, also still in the store. The man had been in the U.S. four years. I said I had not been to Somalia, but had been to four countries in Africa, including Kenya. He smiled and said that was near Somalia. Then he asked where I was from. I said, “Iowa.” He knew that was nearby, but asked further, “But where are you from?” I then realized, that he assumed I, even though a white woman with a midwestern U.S. accent, must be originally an immigrant if I were so positively interested in his becoming a citizen, he being from one of the 6 countries with a Muslim majority population on Trump’s travel ban list.
Just then his brother came out from the store and the man immediately told him about this woman sitting across telling how to study a little bit of the book every day so that he could become confident to take the citizenship test. He was excited now. Then my husband came out and introductions were made all around. The conversation was short. We all had places to go, but before he left I asked about any family he might have still in Somalia. His face turned sad. “My children. . . ” He was determined to take the citizenship test now, even though it would be hard, but the chances of seeing his children again anytime soon would be harder, and all four of us knew it.