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Whitehall refugees eager to meet the challenges of becoming U.S. citizens

| Wednesday, Nov. 6, 2013, 5:00 p.m.
Stephanie Hacke | South Hills Record
Dhana Pati Phuyel, 64, a native of Bhutan who has lived in Whitehall for four-and-a-half years, learns about American history from citizenship class instructor Jodi Gill (right). The citizenship class is hosted by the Whitehall Public Library.
Stephanie Hacke | South Hills Record
Kuber Uprety, 63, (from left), Jiva Neupane, 48, and Dhana Pati Phuyel, 64, all natives of Bhutan and Whitehall residents, review American history during a citizenship class at the Whitehall Borough building last week, hosted by the Whitehall Public Library.
Lay Doh Paw, of Whitehall, studies American history during a citizenship class at the Whitehall Borough building last week.
Janet Leng (right), a volunteer, helps explain American history to Jiva Neupane, 48, (left) and Dhana Pati Phuyel, 64, both natives of Bhutan and Whitehall residents, during a citizenship class at the Whitehall Borough building last week.

A black-and-white image of Abraham Lincoln showed on the large screen at the front of the class.

Kuber Uprety, 63, sat in the front row in a blazer and hat from his native Bhutan with a bright yellow scarf wrapped loosely around his head.

“Philadelphia,” he repeated to himself several times as he slowly wrote the word down at the bottom of his binder, finishing several minutes after the instructor had moved on to another topic.

“Philadelphia,” he said louder as he completed the word.

“That's right,” instructor Jodi Gill said as she walked past.

As many as 25 resettled refugees coming mostly from Bhutan participate in a citizenship class held once a week at the Whitehall Borough building, meant to bolster their chances of passing the U.S. citizenship test in the next year.

The class, held from the end of September through the beginning of December, is sponsored by the Whitehall Public Library and funded through a portion of the $5,000 the library received as part of the inaugural Maggie Forbes Award it received. The money must be spent on community enrichment, Whitehall library director Paula Kelly said.

“These are folks that were new to Whitehall five years ago,” Kelly said. “They've come a long way. To see them come this far, it's just remarkable.”

Kelly, who teaches English-as-a-second-language classes for the Greater Pittsburgh Literacy Council in Whitehall Place, formerly the Prospect Park housing complex, in Whitehall, said she saw a desire from the refugees to become U.S. citizens.

“I know that is their deepest wish,” Kelly said. “There's a lot of enthusiasm.”

While they want to learn, they have restraints. Many do not have cars and still struggle with their English.

Refugees began living in the Whitehall area in the 1990s. The latest U.S. Census showed that 13 percent of the borough's nearly 14,000 residents speak a foreign language at home.

The library has provided transportation to the borough building each week from Whitehall Place for the refugees to come to class and a facilitator to teach them what they will need to know for the test.

The class is not mandated for those wishing to take the citizenship exam but is especially helpful for people who do not have an English background, Gill said.

Part of the exam is history and government questions. There also is a reading and writing portion.

Out of 100 possible study civics questions that the government provides, 10 could be asked during the citizenship exam, and participants must get 60 percent right. It covers everything from the Pilgrims to the Constitution, branches of government, Congress, holidays and wars.

They also must be able to read, write and speak English.

“It's important that they can do both,” said Gill, a lawyer, who spent two years with Compass AmeriCorps, where she taught citizenship classes and worked in Prospect Park. She now is a faculty member for the Community College of Allegheny County, Regis University and Kaplan University.

Many of the refugees, upon arrival in the U.S., must learn basic skills, such as how to hold a pen and get water from a faucet, along with things such as reading and writing English. Learning about American history for the test, then, is hard for them, Gill said.

“They often are not literate in their own language,” she said. “Not only are they learning something new, they're learning the basics.”

Many of the refugees taking the class have been in the United States for four years, Kelly said. They need to be here for five years to take the citizenship test, in most cases, Gill said.

The test means a lot to the refugees.

“They can't vote. They can't serve on a jury. For the older folks, you don't get medical care. There's a lot of those privileges that we just take for granted,” Gill said.

Lessons in citizenship class go far beyond the study guides given by the government to pass the test. It is important to find different ways to get the students to remember what they need to know to get the answers right, Gill said

“Often times, I have to put my professor hat away and think, ‘The goal is to pass the test,'” she said.

Gill focuses on things the refugees understand, she said.

“They understand struggle,” Gill said. “They understand wanting to leave a place for freedom. The early stuff, they get. They're coming from a different place.”

So, she relates her lessons back to that.

The Civil War she compared to children in a family fighting.

“It was sad because we were all one big family,” Gill said as nearly all of the people in the room nodded their heads.

The difference between the North and the South — that was easy.

The North is like downtown Pittsburgh. The South is like Prospect Park. They are different.

“Downtown, we have many buses, and in Prospect Park, we have grass, and we have one bus, the Y49,” Gill said. “Eventually, they started to fight. The North wanted the South to be just like them.”

Watching the expression on their faces is invigorating, Gill said. The refugees want to learn.

“It's all exciting for them. They want to make this their home. It's amazing to teach them. They're just grateful,” she said. “They really feel like kindred spirits with the Colonists. They get the struggles that led those people to leave their country.”

Being in America means freedom for the refugees, they all repeated.

“I like America. You have freedom,” said Thag Timsina, 46, a native of Bhutan.

“Everyone has freedom here,” said Jiva Neupane, 48, a native of Bhutan.

“I like freedom,” said Damberi Regmi, 25, a native of Nepal.

Regmi said she wants to learn more American history than what is being taught in class, and she wants a better grasp of the English language.

And while they come from other countries, they feel home here.

“America is our country,” Uprety said.

Stephanie Hacke is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-388-5818 or

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