The News Desk is a collection of news, notes and breaking items affecting the Fredericksburg community.
Family has reason to celebrate the 4th
BY AMY FLOWERS UMBLE
After seven years in America, the Sesay family still doesn’t know how to celebrate Independence Day.
They’ve never been to a fireworks display or lit up some sparklers. But the family members can tell you about the Declaration of Independence, the Revolutionary War and George Washington.
The three oldest Sesays just recently took the citizenship test in Norfolk—and passed with flying colors.
Now the Chancellor family of six is looking forward to officially becoming United States citizens in an upcoming naturalization ceremony.
“We are really excited to become citizens,” said Tamba Sesay, the family’s father.
Every family member 18 and over has to take the test, but because the parents passed, two of the younger Sesay children—16-year-old Molie and 12-year-old Esther—automatically become citizens. A fourth child, 4-year-old Elaine, was born in America and is already a citizen.
The family of African refugees spent more than two years studying for the test. The week before they headed to Norfolk, Tamba and Siah and their oldest daughter, 19-year-old Isata, spent every spare moment poring over a faded, dog-eared copy of the workbook, “Citizenship: Passing the Test.”
The trio works the overnight shift at the Walmart in Fredericksburg’s Central Park commercial center. During breaks, they headed for the parking lot, where they sat in their car and quizzed one another: How many amendments does the Constitution have? Name one of Virginia’s U.S. senators. What did Susan B. Anthony do?
“Instead of lunch, we would go to our car and read, read, read,” Siah said.
Two weeks ago, that studying paid off when the three Sesays went to Norfolk and answered similar questions, this time posed by immigration officials.
Their passing marks made them the first members of a local citizenship class to pass the test.
Fredericksburg Baptist Church began the class about two years ago, to help the refugees who have resettled here take the next step and become citizens.
The United States government invites refugees who face persecution and torture to come to America as legal residents. After five years, they can become citizens.
In 2004, the first refugee resettlement office opened in the Fredericksburg area, when resettlement officials from Northern Virginia seized on the cheaper housing costs here.
Resettlement began slowly in the area. When the Sesay family arrived in Fredericksburg in late August 2005, they were among about 60 other refugees in the area.
In the intervening years, the numbers would swell to more than 600. The dramatic increase began in 2007, and many of those refugees will be able to take the test sometime this year.
With that five-year mark coming up, Fredericksburg Baptist Church leaders decided to offer the citizenship class, purchasing books and materials for refugee students.
The Sesays are the first class members to take the test. And teacher Charles Haun was delighted with their progress.
The test is known to be grueling. Students must learn the answers to 100 questions about civics, geography and history. On the test day, they will be quizzed on 10 random questions.
“There are 100 questions, and you have to learn all 100,” Haun said. “Let me tell you, before I taught this class, I couldn’t have passed that test.”
Haun, who is the father of Fredericksburg Baptist pastor Larry Haun, takes special pleasure in the Sesay’s success because of their past.
“To know what they went through and to know that they can be here, without fear, it’s pretty big,” he said.
Tamba and Siah fled their native Liberia in 1990, during a civil war. They walked 12 hours a day for weeks, heading for safety in Sierra Leone. They walked through thick jungles.
“If you walk on the road, you die,” Tamba said. “The fighters are on the roads.”
They arrived in Sierra Leone and started new lives in safety, beginning their family by having Isata and a son, Molie.
But not long after they arrived in the neighboring African country, war broke out there, too.
Fighters would come to their home in the middle of the night, to rob them of their possessions. Siah was shot, and Tamba was held at gunpoint in front of his young son.
They were terrified. But better off than many of their neighbors. The fighters killed some and cut off the limbs of others.
Siah and Tamba packed up their children and headed for Guinea to live in a refugee camp. They came back to Sierra Leone a year later.
In that time, they added a third child, Esther, to the family.
They also applied for refugee status through the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees. This involved multiple interviews, background checks and blood tests. The process took years.
Tamba and Siah often checked the door of the naturalization office, where the UNHCR posted the names of those refugees who had been approved for resettlement in another country.
And in the summer of 2005, their names went onto the list to be resettled in America.
“We were so happy that day,” Siah said. “We were so excited.”
They landed in Northern Virginia on Aug. 15, 2005. And on Aug. 31, they moved into an apartment in Fredericksburg. Tamba and Siah quickly got jobs stocking shelves at Walmart.
They started worshipping at Fredericksburg United Methodist Church.
“We have a peaceful life,” Siah said with a smile.
The family later moved to Spotsylvania County. Isata also started working at Walmart and now takes classes at Germanna.
Molie attends Riverbend High School, and Esther goes to Freedom Middle School. Elaine goes to Fredericksburg Baptist Preschool.
They eagerly embraced American life. Whenever she talks about the dangers of their native country, Siah always finishes with a smile and the sentence: “That can’t happen in America.”
And now they look forward to their future as American citizens.
“We will be very excited to vote,” Tamba said.
Amy Flowers Umble: 540/735-1973
1. a market economy, 2. 1787, 3. John Boehner, 4. the Mississippi or the Missouri rivers, 5. James Madison, Alexander Hamilton or John Jay
How did you do? Post in the comments below.