In Your Midst


July 2004

The refugees and immigrants who come to the St. James ESL Program face many barriers to accomplishing their goals. It is part of our job to help them find ways to overcome those barriers. Sometimes they simply lack the English skills. Sometimes they don’t recognize the support they have from others. Sometimes they don’t know where they can get support, or who they should ask. Most of the time, as in the story below, it is all of this and more. The story that follows shows how each of us can make a difference when we commit to people and keep our eyes on the prize: in this case, citizenship.

Vera and Mariya Kozorez proudly display their citizenship certificates.

In 2003, I met two elderly disabled Russian sisters, Vera and Mariya Kozorez, and matched them with a citizenship tutor. They spoke almost no English, but the tutor spoke Russian, so they got off to a good start. They began tutoring twice per week. However, after several months the tutor became concerned about the sisters’ progress. When I visited the three of them during a tutoring session, it was clear Vera and Mariya were having a great deal of difficulty learning English.

Tania Rzhondkovska, our Russian-speaking Student Liaison, and I began to learn more about the sisters. A doctor was able to determine that both sisters had disabilities that resulted in a decreased ability to learn and retain the material needed to pass the citizenship exam. Vera and Mariya were under a lot of stress and their health was deteriorating.

Once, when Tania and I visited the sisters, we could not get in because Vera thought we were immigration officers come to deport them. Tania had to call them on a cell phone before she was able to persuade Vera to open the door.

Tania discovered they had both previously taken the citizenship test and had failed. They were becoming increasingly anxious as they waited to hear about new test dates, and had become convinced they would be deported if they failed again. Then, in August 2003, they lost their Social Security benefits because they had not yet naturalized. As Vera explained this, she held onto Tania and begged her to help.

After some researching, Tania informed the sisters about Disability Waivers, explaining they could be exempt from taking the citizenship test in English. They had never been informed about this. They would need to contact their doctor as soon as possible to complete the waivers. In December 2003, Oleg Gouts at the Circle of Friends, a day center for Russian refugees and immigrants in Bellevue, helped Vera and Mariya to complete their Disability Waivers.

As their new test date approached, I found free legal services for Vera and Mariya. Immigration attorneys Kristen Kussmann from Northwest Immigrant Rights Project and Jill Dutton from Northwest Justice Project met with Mariya and Vera to make sure everything was in order. They determined that there was additional information needed to complete the Disability Waivers. Mariya’s nephew picked up the final waivers from the doctor on the morning of the test. Kristen, Jill, Tania, the sisters’ nephew and I all accompanied them to their citizenship tests.

On March 1, 2004, at USCIS Seattle (formerly the INS) Mariya took her citizenship test accompanied by Jill and an interpreter. Forty minutes later Mariya was a US citizen! Vera had her citizenship test immediately afterwards and also passed! Both Vera and Mariya were visibly relieved and cried while hugging everyone.

If you had known Vera and Mariya before, they would seem like different people today. They have a lot less stress in their lives and Mariya’s health has improved significantly. She says she always felt like a foreigner before, but now feels that she has come home.

Mariya and Vera were born in the Soviet Union when Stalin came to power. They grew up in poverty and hunger, they worked very hard all their lives, and retirement promised to be even more difficult. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, they were not able to obtain essential medical assistance. The process of getting to the US was long and painful. But now, at last, they are able to rest a little.

“Now we feeling as we are an American citizen not as a guest,” Mariya said.

“We appreciate all who help us; now we are calm,” Vera added.

Jim Hodges is Citizenship Coordinator of the St. James ESL program.
Special thanks to Chris Koehler, director of the St. James ESL Program. This article is reprinted from the Spring 2004 issue of Connections, the St. James ESL Program Newsletter.  If you would like to become a part of the St. James ESL program as a tutor or volunteer, or by making a monetary gift, call 206-382-4511 or visit

Jim Hodges and the Citizenship Program

Jim Hodges, the Citizenship Coordinator for the St. James ESL program, has a citizenship story of his own. Born in England, Jim grew up near Dartmoor, a windswept plain littered with neolithic remains—the setting of Conan Doyle’s famous Hound of the Baskervilles.

While a student at the University of Greenwich, Jim wanted to do a year abroad. The University of Greenwich had an exchange program with Whitworth College in Spokane, so Jim did his senior undergraduate year there. After a summer at home, he returned to Whitworth to enroll in a Master’s program in International Management. It was there he met his future wife. He married and took a job with an internet startup company. After a year with the company, Jim made a resolve: “That’s the last time I’ll ever work eighty hours a week to make someone else a millionaire!” He went to work for AmeriCorps in Federal Way, coordinating an ESL program; when that position ended, he came to St. James ESL in August of 2000.

The St. James Citizenship program seeks especially to help students who are homebound or disabled. Most students are over 55 and are prevented for a variety of reasons from attending a citizenship class. The experience of coming into the United States and the process of becoming a citizen can be overwhelming, especially when the language barrier is compounded by learning or physical disabilities. Jim’s job has grown from simply matching students with tutors, to guiding students through the entire Citizenship process: paperwork, fee waivers, troubleshooting problems (a lost Green Card, for example), helping them prepare for and pass the exam.

As an immigrant himself, Jim feels he has extra insight into the special needs of his students. Often, he says, students who speak no English at all are still able to form an instant bond with him when he shows them his own Green Card. Immediately, they know he understands their needs and is one of them. And Jim, as he continues on the road to becoming a US citizen himself, keeps learning more and more about ways to help his students along. At an immigration office in Burien where he was waiting to get fingerprinted, he found himself noticing things like signage and parking, in order to communicate this to his students who would be undergoing the same ordeal.

Jim will be taking his own Citizenship Exam this August. He especially looks forward to casting his vote in the November elections. He urges all his students to take their citizenship seriously and to register to vote. Jim’s determination to see every citizenship student naturalize has resulted in a 95% success rate over the past three years!

Maria Laughlin

Link to other articles in the July 2004 issue

Back To In Your Midst Page