Incredible Odyssey Ends in Citizenship for IH Client

When Mathew Mayom went to take his naturalization exam to qualify for U.S. citizenship, he wasn’t nervous at all. After being forced to flee war-torn South Sudan, living in exile in Cairo, and then spending 5 years trying to reunite with his wife here in Charlotte, he was not going to let one test upset him.

Mathew Mayom

Mathew Mayom stands in front of the Charlotte office of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services after being sworn in as a U.S. citizen.

“I was ready,” Mathew explained with a smile. “This exam did not make me nervous because I have been in much worse situations!”

Mathew and his wife Teresa grew up in South Sudan knowing only war. The Second Sudanese Civil War ebbed and flowed across their homeland from 1983 until 2005. During that time, the turmoil and unrest became too much for their respective families, and they both ended up as refugees in Egypt. Although they were from the same part of Sudan, they did not meet until after they arrived in Cairo. While in Egypt, they got married and soon had their first child.

But theirs was not to be a simple “and they lived happily ever after” story. Not long after they were married, Teresa received a U.S. visa to join her mother and brother in Charlotte. She left for the U.S. seeking safer conditions and a better future for the couple’s young child. Mathew, however, had no family connections in the U.S. and he was left behind with only the hope that he could work through the immigration process to someday join his wife in Charlotte. A process that would ultimately take years to complete.

“It is hard to be away from your family. Not knowing where they are or how they are doing,” he explained.

For five years, Mathew and Teresa worked diligently to be reunited. During that time, Teresa earned U.S. citizenship and became a client of the International House Immigration Law Clinic. Working with Anne Crotty and Jelena Giric-Held, she petitioned the U.S. government for visa for Mathew. After two years of forms, paperwork, and filings, they were finally able to secure a green card for Mathew and he arrived in Charlotte in 2010.

The law clinic’s work was not done however. There were legal procedures with his permanent residence card that had to be followed after he arrived in the country and then, together, they tackled the last hurdle — getting U.S. citizenship for Mathew.

“It was an amazing thing”, recalls Mathew. “They helped me with the fee waiver for the naturalization fee. Jelena gave me a study guide and tested me to make sure I was ready.” And on the day of the exam, Jelena went with Mathew for moral support.

Mathew passed the exam easily and one week later, at the Charlotte office of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, he was sworn in as a U.S. citizen. That naturalization ceremony completed an odyssey that had begun nearly 15 years earlier.

“To become a citizen of the US is a huge opportunity. Especially for me because I am trying to pursue my education. It will allow me to compete for different and better jobs. As a citizen you have all opportunities open in front of you.”

Life is looking up for Teresa and Mathew these days. They have three children now and Mathew thanks IH for helping make that possible. “I’m happy to have my wife and kids with me everyday now. I am grateful to the Law Clinic for reuniting me with my family. They do a great job for a lot of people.”

Mathew’s eyes sparkle as he talks about his new life in Charlotte, and he flashes the wide contented smile of a man who has finally arrived home after a long and arduous journey.

New Friends for a New Year

Want a New Year’s Resolution that will be easy to keep?   Consider resolving to make a new friend this year, a friend from a country that is different from your own. International House can help!DSC03196

Make plans to attend the “Get to Know You” potluck lunch on January 7 offered by Doorways, our monthly social group for international women, or come hear retired Winthrop University professor (and member of our French Conversation Hour) Roger Baumgarte speak about his book, “Friends Beyond Borders”, on January 13. (There is more info on these events in this newsletter issue.) Check out one of our free Conversation Hours. This is a great way to make a new friend AND make good on your resolution from last year to practice a new language!

Or how about taking the plunge and hosting one of our international visitors?  It is absolutely one of the best options for exploring new cultures and friendships without leaving home!  After hosting these delightful folks in my spare bedroom for a few days over the past 4 years, I am grateful to still be in touch with Gauhar (Kazakhstan), Hina (Pakistan), Gia (Georgia), Kosalai (Sri Lanka), Naheed (Bangladesh), Sylvana, and Shokh (Iraq).  We enjoyed cooking together, seeing the Charlotte sights, and chatting into the evening about topics ranging from family to fashion, politics to pets, and social media to soccer.  I am extremely grateful for the opportunity to get to know these inspirational leaders who offer me different ways of viewing this remarkable world that we share.

It is also easy to make an international friend by volunteering to be a tutor for someone learning English or attending our Sunday citizenship classes.  This is a rewarding way to not only make a difference in someone’s life but also learn about the rich cultural diversity that makes Charlotte an increasingly global city.

Woodrow Wilson said: “Friendship is the only cement that will ever hold the world together.”  Why not resolve to make a new international friend in 2015?  It is a small but effective way to help hold this fragile world together!

Denise Cumbee Long
Executive Director, International House

Voting: A Right and a Privilege

It was great to see the flurry of activity down the hall this past week as the Midwood International & Cultural Center was designated as an early voting site.

Tanja Voting

Tanja Pauler

We particularly celebrated the day that one of our newest staff members, AmeriCorps Member Tanja Pauler, voted in the U.S. for the first time. Originally from Serbia, Tanja recently became a naturalized U.S. citizen and was eager to take advantage of her newly earned right to vote for candidates of her choice.

Unfortunately, many native-born U.S. citizens don’t exercise this important right. Statistics show that the average voter turnout in the US during a Presidential election is only 48% and even less in years when no Presidential election is held. This means that the US is ranked 120th out of 169 countries.

In other places, voter turnout is much higher. For instance, 81% of eligible voters in Norway go to the polls, and this high turnout occurs in a country where political advertising on radio and television is banned!

Today is another election day where U.S. citizens have the opportunity to vote for candidates that represent the policies they support. It is easy to let cynicism, the political polarization in Washington, and disgust at the onslaught of negative TV ads become excuses for not participating in our democratic process.

But, don’t let important issues be decided by a fraction of those eligible to vote! Visit International House and be inspired by those who have waited many years to become U.S. citizens and are overjoyed to finally have the privilege of voting. You will be reminded that there are many places around the world where people have much less voice in determining the leadership and direction of their countries.

If you haven’t already done so, I hope you will exercise your right to vote today!

Making the African Connection

Josephine at Greentek

Josephine with Ethan Gilbert, CEO of Greentek Recycling.

International House had the honor of hosting two cohorts of Professional Fellows from Zambia and Zimbabwe this past year. Our most recent delegation featured 6 dynamic young entrepreneurs who spent three weeks with us in October. They enjoyed staying with their Charlotte home hosts and made the most of their time in the Queen City by networking and connecting to other entrepreneurs, business executives and academic scholars.

One example is Ms. Josephine Takundwa who runs ‘Earthlink Technologies’ in Zimbabwe. She distributes power surge protectors and IT Hardware throughout Southern Africa. During a meeting and site tour with Ethan Gilbert, CEO of Greentek Recycling, Ms. Takundwa learned about the business of IT hardware recycling. This is a service that is currently not provided in Africa, and she was able to broker a deal involving shipping containers of used IT hardware from Zimbabwe to be recycled by Greentek right here in Charlotte. Josephine also met with top executives at Duke Energy facilitated by our Board member Mr. Jose Merino and also toured the IT network system lab at CPCC, thanks to a meeting set up by Dr. Maha Gingrich, another IH Board member. Another member of the delegation, Ms. Misozi Mkandawire, who is starting a micro financing venture in Zambia, also found an interested investor at an entrepreneur meetup in the South Park area.

International House partners with the U.S. State Department and other national agencies to bring scores of emerging global leaders to Charlotte every year. These international guests are leaders in the government, business or NGO sectors in their home countries and are seeking to connect with their professional peers in the United States. This is “soft diplomacy” at its best. “People to people” connections break down barriers, build understanding, and promote prosperity and peace. Our Citizen Diplomacy program is an important part of how International House welcomes the world to Charlotte!

Volunteer with a Passion for Teaching: Amy Rae Foss

When Amy Rae Foss first visited the International Book Club at International House, she had no idea how that decision would impact her life … or how she would ultimately impact the lives of so many immigrants and refugees working to make a better life for themselves in Charlotte.

Amy Rae Foss

Amy Rae Foss Volunteer Citizenship Instructor

Originally from Minnesota, Amy Rae ended up in North Carolina after a three year stint as a Middle School English/Language Arts teacher in Arkansas. She works now for a healthcare software company and travels extensively to train medical personnel.  Despite her hectic travel schedule, she always makes time to get back to Charlotte for her work as a Volunteer Instructor for Sunday afternoon Citizenship Classes. “I am actually rarely in Charlotte”, Amy explains. “There are times when I schedule my travel plans to get back to Charlotte just in time for Citizenship training, and then leave town again right after class.”

Why would Amy Rae make such a sacrifice in her travel plans? That’s easy for her to answer. “Education is something that I strongly value and I feel passionately that everyone – including people of all backgrounds – should have access to educational opportunities. Which is what I love about International House – it brings people together from all over our community and the world. ”

Citizenship Class with AmyAs much as her busy schedule requires a certain amount of personal sacrifice to prepare for her classes, Amy feels like she gets as much, if not more, in return from her students. “For me, the most rewarding thing about teaching is seeing the light bulb go off for someone – to see their excitement when they remember something and can apply it. At International House, this goes a step further when our Citizenship students actually become naturalized citizens and call or email me to let me know that they have passed! I love being a part of helping them accomplish it and celebrate all their hard work and success!”

Amy Rae also feels passionately that her students contribute significantly to the success of the greater Charlotte community. “Our students are from such diverse backgrounds and all their cultures, languages, traditions, etc. are beautiful. They add so much dimension and diversity to the Charlotte community.”

She also reminds us out that immigrants who ultimately achieve citizenship are able to contribute even more to their community. “Studies in Charlotte have shown”, Amy explains, “that adults who become naturalized citizens are better able to support their families financially and that their kids do better in school. I think that is such an important thing to remember. At International House, we help get them there.”

Issues concerning immigration in the United States often become highly charged political debates filled with numbers and statistics. In her position as a volunteer at International House, however, Amy Rae has the chance to see behind those numbers – to see the human face of hopes, dreams, struggles, fears, and the drive to preserve and protect family. “Some border towns have banned families from adopting/fostering kids from Central America. For many Americans, those are the only faces they see when they hear the word “immigrant”. People forget all the nations that immigrants come from, the struggles they have faced to get here, the hard work that they do, their kindness, and their compassion for people. It all comes down to stories. If people were to take a minute to talk to and listen, actually listen, to someone not born in the U.S. they would come to understand the person behind the title.”

In the end, Amy Rae is like most staff Amy Rae Foss in Classand volunteers at International House: she receives as much, if not more, than she gives. “There are so many students and classes that I’ve worked with who have created special memories and hold a special place in my heart. They are the most encouraging and grateful people that I encounter in any given week. ”

And would she recommend that others consider volunteering at International House? “Of course people should volunteer at International House! Where and when else can you meet people from such diverse backgrounds and learn from them? In our multicultural world, having the skills to interact with people from all over are increasingly important. It’s just such a rewarding and fulfilling experience.”

International House is fortunate to have hundreds of volunteers like Amy Rae – all doing their part to create a better life for our newest neighbors, our community, and ultimately – themselves. Thanks, Amy Rae!

Generous Donors Make Legacy Gift to International House

Although International House’s capital campaign was mostly complete at the end of 2012, higher than anticipated renovation costs for our move to the former Midwood High School meant that we were left with a $69,000 gap to cover construction expenses. Three generous couples have helped us close that gap through a September legacy gift of $30,000. We are delighted to announce that long term supporters Tony and Lakana Bikhazi coordinated a combined gift with their friends, Ziad and Roula Korban of Hong Kong, and Edouard and Rita Rassie of Lebanon. We are pleased to honor the Bikhazi’s, Korban’s and Rassie’s with Ambassador Level Recognition for their generous gift and named sponsorship of the large auditorium space here at the Midwood International & Cultural Center.

Tony and Lakana

Lakana and Tony Bikhazi

“We support the International House team for all the humanitarian and social activities they do in helping new comers assimilate and enjoy a better life”, said the Bikhazi’s who were co-chairs of International House’s 2012 capital campaign. Tony is from Lebanon, and Lakana from Thailand. Their own experience as immigrants who have built successful lives in the United States has given them great compassion for others who arrive in Charlotte from countries around the globe. Lakana Bikhazi has also given her time and energy for many years as the coordinator of the Doorways group at International House. Doorways provides a monthly opportunity to international women in Charlotte who want to meet new friends while enjoying programs and excursions to various places of interest.

Edouard Rassie expresses a similar motivation for their donation: “We lived in Charlotte for 14 years starting in 1988, and we are very familiar with the International House and its activities… we are very proud of what the International House has become and the help you provide to the members of the international community in the Charlotte metropolitan area.”

International House is deeply grateful for the generosity of the Rassie’s, Korban’s and Bikhazi’s. Their gift will continue our work of welcoming newcomers to Charlotte from around the world. It is because of people like them, and many other kind donors who support International House, that we can keep up the programs and services that turn strangers into neighbors!

Dedicated Tutor Helps Student Achieve Her Dream


Megan Mavity, Maricela Boyzo, and Priscilla Sawicki

Growing up in Mexico, Maricela Boyzo’s father believed that children should work and not go to school. So when she arrived in the USA as a young bride, not only could she not speak English, but she could also not read or write in her native Spanish.

After years of struggling with a new language, Maricela enrolled in International House’s English Tutoring program in 2011 and was paired with IH tutor Priscilla Sawicki. Priscilla is a retired school teacher who spent many years overseas, and has a keen appreciation for the difficulties faced by non-native speakers as they attempt to navigate the details of everyday life.

Within moments of their meeting, Priscilla realized that Maricela faced many more challenges than the typical student in IH’s English program. “Maricela told me that she had never been to school. She didn’t even know the alphabet. I realized within minutes that Maricela and I were going back to 1st grade.”

Despite the considerable obstacles, Maricela was determined to learn, and Priscilla was there to help her every step of the way. They met twice a week during that first year and their hard work paid off. “I would reinforce the lessons taught in the ESL class at International House” explains Priscilla. “We were really able to concentrate on what Maricela needed to do and needed to understand. At the end of that first year, she had the basics and wanted to move on to citizenship classes.”

Maricela again showed incredible determination and went through 8 cycles of citizenship training to prepare for her USCIS citizenship exam. Maricela had to prepare to answer from a list of 100 civics and history questions featured on the exam, be able to read English, and also be able to write a sentence in English.

After two years of preparation, Maricela was ready to take the exam. This time, however, she would have to be on her own – without her teacher and good friend to guide the way. Fortunately they had practiced so many times that Maricela knew exactly to expect. She was apprehensive, but philosophical. “Yes, I was a little bit nervous. It’s normal!” After the exam was finished, Maricela’s excited daughter called Priscilla to give her the good news that her mother had passed the exam! Then, just two days later, Maricela attended her naturalization ceremony and in June of 2014 became a U.S. citizen.

As a citizen, Maricela’s job prospects are considerably improved, and she can travel more freely back and forth to visit family in Mexico. Priscilla is confident that the real winner in this story is Charlotte. “Immigration is something we all talk about now, but this path to citizenship is long and difficult and expensive. When you have someone as motivated as Maricela to overcome incredible obstacles it is a pleasure to have her as a fellow citizen. Maricela will definitely be an asset to our community.”

Priscilla would also encourage others to join her as a tutor at IH. “This has been one of the most rewarding things that I’ve ever done. Not only did I meet a really special person, but I helped her achieve her goal. It’s worth every minute. And the person you help is so appreciative.”

Maricela really is appreciative. With a huge smile and an arm wrapped around her friend she says, “A very good friend. I love her!”