Today on Fourth of July, we are called to celebrate our independence and all the things that make our nation so great.
A perfect way to celebrate our nation’s birthday is by sharing with you the story of some of our nation’s newest citizens: Iryna and Sergei Yemelyanenka.
Today, Iryna and Sergei (pictured above) are celebrating their first Fourth of July as American citizens. Originally from Belarus, Iryna and Sergei moved to the United States in August 2017 after winning the Diversity Immigrant Visa Program, commonly known as the green card lottery.
“The main reason we wanted to move to the United States is freedom,” said Iryna, “because in Belarus, the political situation is very difficult. We have had the same president for 29 years.”
“Here, in the United States, you have freedom of speech. You can discuss politics and you can run for office if you want. In Belarus, if you try to do it, you will go to prison,” explained Sergei.
The political instability in the region due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine further motivated them to apply for U.S. citizenship. “Every day we watch the news from Belarus, from Ukraine, from Russia. It’s very sad,” said Iryna. “Most of our friends from Belarus have moved to Poland, to Kazakhstan, to Georgia, to another country,” said Sergei. “But some of them are still in Belarus, and they tell us how difficult it is,” added Iryna.
Iryna and Sergei were inspired to become U.S. citizens by America’s promise of opportunity, freedom, and democracy. “In Belarus, we went to every election already knowing the result: that Lukashenko will be president again. Here, in the United States, I believe that the people choose their government,” said Iryna.
To prepare for the interview and test, Iryna and Sergei received help from the International Center of Catholic Charities Community Services. After learning about the free programs provided by the International Center from Ukrainian friends, they enrolled in citizenship preparation classes and in the one-to-one conversation partner program.
“Before taking the classes, I was very very scared, but after, I felt that I was ready for the interview and test,” said Iryna.
“I had online classes [once a week for two months] and received two free textbooks about citizenship that were very helpful. I loved my teacher, Mark, very much because he was very positive and dynamic. He provided a lot of information and always answered additional questions from students. It was a great experience,” said Iryna.
Before his citizenship interview and test, Sergei met six times with a conversation partner who helped to prepare him. The conversation partner provided mock interviews, coaching, and was a resource to Sergei to answer any questions. “It was so helpful — absolutely,” said Sergei.
The International Center supports immigrants like Iryna and Sergei to realize their goals and help integrate them into life in New York and the United States. The center’s programing includes English classes at multiple proficiency levels, citizenship preparation classes, computer skills workshops, one-to-one conversation practice, and other specialized community-based programs.
“We serve people from over 80 different countries. We welcome everyone,” said Elaine Roberts, Director of Programs at the International Center.
“The two kinds of areas that we impact are language skills and confidence,” said Ms. Roberts. “Students need English to secure a better job, to get a better quality of life, to access professional training, and to engage in their new community here. They need English to be part of their new life here.”
“The confidence piece is — students need to be able to use the language. They need to feel that they can use the language and that they will get a response when they use the language. Part of what we do in our classes and with our conversation partners is we try to create a sense of community, of welcoming, of warmth, and of support. Students practice here and when they go outside, they are ready,” said Ms. Roberts.
International Center students are highly motivated and driven. “Everyone we meet is here because they have chosen to be here. They are not forced and not pressured. They have said, ‘I want a better job,’ or ‘I want to go to college,’ and they have found the International Center and signed up on their own with their own motivation,” said Ms. Roberts. “They are focused. They are determined. They are really trying their hardest.”
Demand for the International Center’s programs is increasing.
With the large influx of people coming into New York and needing to learn English, such as Ukrainians and asylum seekers from the southern border, the International Center has waiting lists across all their programs. “We would love to have more classes,” said Ms. Roberts, “especially classes for the beginner levels because a lot of the people we are meeting have almost no English with very limited proficiency.”
This year alone, the International Center will serve approximately 800 people, like Iryna and Sergei.
“We would like to say that we are very grateful to the people who choose to contribute to the International Center and Catholic Charities,” said Iryna and Sergei.
“As immigrants, we greatly appreciate all help and support that we got from the International Center and Catholic Charities, which would not have been possible without your generous contribution. It makes the process of assimilation of immigrants much easier,” said Iryna and Sergei.
Today, Iryna and Sergei live in Brooklyn where Iryna works as an accountant and Sergei as an international shipping and logistics specialist. For the couple, the openness and kindness of their fellow Americans adds to their quality of life and joy of living in their new country.
“I like people here in the United States, especially New York,” reflected Iryna. “For example, even people who I’ve never met before, they will say to you: ‘Wow, such great hair!’ or ‘Wow, such a great dress!’ I have never heard that in Belarus because people are more closed — not open.”
“I’m proud to be an American citizen,” said Iryna. “I told all my friends. I boasted.”
Today, Iryna and Sergei will celebrate their first Fourth of July as American citizens like many New Yorkers. “I like Macy’s Fourth of July fireworks very much. We are going to go watch,” said Iryna.
We wish you a happy and blessed Fourth of July!
Msgr. Kevin Sullivan