During the second week of online school, students in Godwin High School teacher Rebecca Martino’s third period college prep government class cheered on a fellow classmate.
That day, Godwin senior Azhar Mahmood announced to his government class that only a few months earlier in June, he gained citizenship to the United States.
Earlier in that class period, Martino gave her students a mock US citizenship test to assess their knowledge of their country.
“Every year I give my students a ‘citizenship test.’ It isn’t for a grade but is an actual sampling of 30 of the 100 possible questions that could be asked on the real US citizenship test. Students always say, ‘This is so difficult!’ or ‘I couldn’t pass this, thank goodness I was born here,’” said Martino.
Martino’s mock citizenship test queries topics spanning over US geography, such as US territories, important historical facts and figures such as Independence Day, and even portions of the US Constitution.
After the test was concluded, Martino opened the class up for discussion, leading to an unexpected discovery.
“This year was similar, except at the end when I asked if anyone had ever witnessed a naturalization ceremony, Mahmood piped up and said, ‘I actually became a US citizen a couple of weeks ago.’ The class unmuted their mics and clapped and cheered for him and he told us a little bit about his experience,” said Martino.
Mahmood shared the details behind his recent accomplishment with the class.
Mahmood said, “My ceremony was in June and was on the same day I gained my US citizenship. The US Citizenship and Immigration Service is in Norfolk, located near Virginia Beach.”
Mahmood traveled down to Norfolk for his ceremony where he took his oath swearing allegiance to the United States and then received his naturalization certificate.
While awaiting the date of his naturalization ceremony, Mahmood said his family members experienced some delays in their naturalization process.
“For me they didn’t change the date, but for my parents they did because of the coronavirus. Also, when I was there for the ceremony, I couldn’t bring my parents because of the coronavirus. You had to come by yourself, and only five people were allowed in the room where you took the oath,” said Mahmood.
Even without any delays, the naturalization process is extensive. According to the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services’ (USCIS) ‘Processing Times’ webpage, the average processing time of a permanent resident’s naturalization application takes around eight months, while the overall naturalization process, including biometric and citizenship interviews as well as the naturalization ceremony, can span up to a year and a half.
To become a naturalized citizen, one must meet requirements in the N-400 Naturalization Application Form, which include: legal permanent residence in the US for at least five years, good moral character, proficiency in reading, writing, and speaking the English language, and belief and support in the principles of the United States Constitution. These are just some of the basic requirements for naturalization.
Other obligations of the naturalization process include attending a biometrics appointment to provide your fingerprints, photos, and signature, being interviewed by a USCIS officer, and completing a rigorous and extensive citizenship test on history, civics, and English proficiency.
For Mahmood, preparing for his citizenship test included collecting all of the necessary documentation to prove permanent residency and personal identification, studying and memorizing 100 questions about American history, government, and civics, and prepping for the English portion of the exam, which tests applicants’ speaking, reading, and writing proficiency from prompts given by the USCIS officer.
“I prepared for the citizenship test for two months before, and I failed the first time. They gave me another two months to study for the test again, and I passed the second time,” said Mahmood.
Preparing for his test date was not Mahmood’s only obligation to meet naturalization eligibility; there was also immense paperwork and processes to go through.
“When you come to America as an immigrant, the government gives you your social security and your green card first. After they give you this, you have to stay in America for five years and then you will take your citizenship [test]. The process for citizenship is a little bit hard because you have to fill [out] a lot of papers and the government has to do a background check,” said Mahmood.
Mahmood came to the US only a few years ago, when he and his family sought new opportunities.
“I used to live in Iraq before, and I came here for a better education and a better life. I have lived in the US and in Virginia for five years,” said Mahmood.
Finally, this summer, all of Mahmood’s hard work paid off, and he got to attend his naturalization ceremony.
“I was a little bit nervous, but at the same time I was happy that I’m becoming an American citizen, and that I can work for this country,” said Mahmood.
After an eventful day, multiple celebrations were in order for Mahmood.
“I celebrated with my parents at home and then also celebrated with my friends. They were proud of me, and they were so happy for me because it took a lot of time to become a US citizen,” said Mahmood.
This admiration was also evident in Martino’s classroom, and Mahmood took notice.
“I was so happy when the class started clapping because I couldn’t celebrate with a lot of people due to COVID, and it also made me feel more comfortable to talk about it,” said Mahmood.
Now, an official US citizen, Mahmood looks to the future, preparing for what opportunities lie ahead.
“I will be attending college after I finish high school. I’m interested in working with electric cars like Tesla and other companies,” said Mahmood.
Though Martino has had students in the past who’ve gained their US citizenship, Mahmood’s experience left a mark on her.
“It was one of the coolest things I have ever experienced as an educator. It gave me chills,” said Martino.
According to Martino, this experience brought the class together and provided hope for personal connection, in spite of a virtual schooling atmosphere.
“It reminded me that in this time of being apart, there are still things that can bring our community together. I felt like we were all in the same room for that brief moment,” said Martino.
photo courtesy Azhar Mahmood