a Magazine for Writers

by Wendy L. Dodek

I can do nothing now but study the sky - the rich blue sky hanging  low over Boston while waiting outside the Federal courthouse for Semira, my Bosnian student. At 8:15 a.m., no Semira. Her citizenship appointment is for 8:30.

Where is my 50-something-year old student whose face beams at every new discovery, a childlike quality that belies the lines forming on her face and her widening middle-aged body?

I begin to worry and pace the corridors between the front and the atrium entrances of this building. Which door would she enter? Despite over four years of English lessons I could not be certain from her description.

The first time I met Semira she greeted me with one of the warmest smiles I had ever seen. I knew just three facts about Semira when we met: Bosnian refugee, husband killed in the war, enthusiastic learner. Actually, enthusiastic learner was my only criteria when offering to volunteer. My previous student, also from Bosnia, was a weary mother of five young children whose watery eyes lowered whenever I arrived at her house. English was just another hardship, a penalty for having a safe home. I wanted to offer her an entrée to the U.S. and to remove some of the isolation through language. And perhaps, I hoped to be her American friend. Instead, I represented the burden of her new country.

Semira could not be more different: a woman whose husband and home were taken during the war but somehow, she persevered. Her quick smile and sparkly brown eyes greet me every week when I arrive at the library for our lessons.

“I must learn – how I live in the U.S. and not speak English?” she asks in a well-rehearsed line she must use for her grown children who seem bewildered by their mother’s determination and willingness to wait for a bus and two trains for a weekly dose of English.

Finally Semira arrives this morning, entering the federal building out of breath. “Oh, I nervous,” she pants. “The bus is slow. Start, stop, start, stop.” As she says, ‘stop’, her knees bend as if to emphasize the stopping action of the bus.

“It’s okay. We have plenty of time. The exam room is over here and it’s not yet 8:30.”

“Oh, my Wendy, my Wendy”. I’m so happy you here,” she says as she  hugs me and plants a kiss on my cheek.

We enter a large waiting room and sit in one of the long rows of cold benches. The slender young couple behind me is speaking in Chinese. Semira thinks the front row women are all Russian. But the dominant sound in the room is war. The television is tuned to MSNBC and the top story is Iraq. I try to ignore the TV that sits in the corner next to the large American flag.

Semira has calmed down. She sits next to me in her navy blue pants, long dark sweater and subdued floral blouse. The dark colors hide her extra weight well.  She says she is not so nervous now as she wipes her face with a white handkerchief and sighs. Her blonde hair is short and simply styled. It’s her own creation; she studied to be a hairdresser in Bosnia.  In the US, her work is providing daycare for her grandchildren.

“I don’t pass, no problem. Three months again I try.”

Despite these words, I know Semira is eager to pass the exam today.  She has been studying the 100 questions in the citizenship handbook for weeks—her notes are wrinkled from folding and refolding. The questions are on one side of the page; answers on the opposite side with pronunciation notes scribbled in her native Bosnian.  In the past week I have been trying to explain the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.   Semira nods as I explain but does not seem to understand. She prefers to memorize her answers: 50 states, 13 flag stripes, Francis Scott Key. But then she gets confused with names:  William Rehnquist and Abraham Lincoln. The Supreme Court Chief Justice and the man who  freed the slaves—so far apart in history but do their names sound similar to her?

“My head no good. I’m old,” she often complains.

Semira continues to make many mistakes. I’ve grown accustomed to her  English. I understand her and she understands me and this makes her happy. I don’t correct  her, as I should, neglecting my role as her English tutor and instead strive to develop her self-confidence. Perhaps if I had been stricter, corrected her mistakes more often,  she would be better prepared. Today I hold onto my worries. folding my hands in my lap.

I never asked Semira why she wants to be a U.S. citizen though today  she says she will tell the examiner, “I love the U.S.” When I continue to look at her,  she explains. 

“It’s true. I can live here. I have SSI check, my apartment, my  children, grandchildren here. It’s good.”

I add that there is no war here – thinking of the Bosnian ethnic  cleansing and massacre of
men in her town but my comment sounds absurd as the bomb noises boom  from the TV speaker.

Semira looks at the TV and says, “terrible.” I want to ask if the noises scare her, bring back memories of her war, but this is not the place. I wonder if I will ever be able to ask and if she will be able to tell me in her own words, in English.

Today, we wait and run out of things to say. The news broadcaster also has run out of things to say and repeats the headlines over and over. We cannot seem to avoid the TV.  Thirty minutes, forty minutes more we wait. I want to ask the desk clerk who looks bored, slumped in the seat of her desk if they have overlooked Semira’s application but Semira  tells me no. She does not want me to raise a fuss. She will wait patiently. At last, Semira’s name is called and she jumps out of her seat and dashes to the front of the room as if she would miss her turn, if not appearing before the officer within three seconds.

Now I must wait alone, wondering how to console Semira if she fails.  How can I explain in simple English the Judiciary, the Executive and Legislative branches of government, large words Semira tries to swallow whole without understanding.

I watch the faces of the other applicants as they walk by me, passing  in front of the TV monitor that now features soldiers holding large rifles. Some of these applicants smile slightly. No one looks joyous but there are no tears. Where is the emotion? They have finished their test. Did they pass the exam? It is as if they do not want to boast of their accomplishment should others in the room fail or show signs of shame should they fail.

It’s almost twenty minutes before the door opens and Semira emerges. No smile. Semira walks towards me and when she is within my reach, that smile starts to appear along with a muted giggle.  In the next five minutes I would learn of Semira’s valiant efforts, her difficulties and triumph. We sit down on the bench and she reenacts her meeting.  She explains that she began the interview complimenting the examiner. I wince hearing my student’s words. If I had known I would have told her not to resort to flattery.

“I told her, ‘I am lucky. I have beautiful lady today.’” Semira is proud of her words.

“Nice, nice teeth”, and then adding for my benefit. “It’s true. She has beautiful teeth!”

“It’s beautiful day today”; Semira continued her small talk with the immigration officer.

Yet when the officer began the exam, one question after the next Semira answered incorrectly. After three wrong responses in a row the examiner chastised, “This isn’t
good, Semira.”

“I nervous, confused. I study everything. I know all questions in book!”  The officer’s words wounded her but rather than feeling defeated, Semira rallied.

Did this examiner, the woman with the good teeth, like Semira’s gumption, her determination?  Were these American virtues? Somehow, Semira endeared herself to the officer who bent the rules- allowing Semira to look at the book and read the questions exactly as they are written in the book.  The examiner pointed to seven more questions and each Semira read silently, answered aloud quickly and correctly.

“Congratulations Semira, you passed!”

I, too, congratulate Semira, feeling her joy and her relief. We are free – free to leave the federal building, free to walk away from the TV war, the large American flag and the examiner with nice teeth.

“It’s beautiful day today. No more study!” Semira exclaims while swinging her arm around me as we exit the building. I picture William Rehnquist, Abraham Lincoln and Francis Scott Key- mere names in block letters tumbling to the ground. It is sunny, brighter than this morning and even with the November chill there is enough warmth for celebrating this victory without much struggle.


Wendy L. Dodek is a free-lance writer with a passion for understanding different cultures. She has been a volunteer with the International Institute of Boston for over a decade working with people from Ethiopia, Saudi Arabia and Bosnia. She has visited five continents and hopes to travel with Semira to Bosnia in 2006. Contact Wendy.
Read our interview with Wendy.