During a citizenship class taught in both English and Russian, instructor Ruslan Revutsky reviewed the three branches of government.
“What are the two parts of the U.S. Congress?” he asked the class of more than a dozen students.
After a few seconds to ponder the question, they replied the House and the Senate.
What’s the highest court in the country? The Supreme Court.
If the president can no longer serve, who becomes the president? The vice president. And what is his name? Mike Pence.
Revutsky, an immigration counselor with Lutheran Community Services Northwest in Vancouver, called on students, asking them what the U.S. government does and how it functions. The knowledge will be important for the civics portion of the U.S. citizenship test, which also includes an English test.
Lutheran Community Services Northwest is best known for its work with refugees and immigrants; it’s the only accredited agency in Vancouver to carry out such work. Staff from the larger Portland office opened the Vancouver branch in 1994 with $10,000 and a single program in a room at Trinity Lutheran Church.
The program aimed to help a growing number of refugees from the former Soviet Union who were moving to Southwest Washington. Some refugee families felt the quality of life was better and the cost of living was cheaper north of the Columbia River. Those families invited their relatives to join them in Vancouver.
Since then, a lot has changed at the nonprofit, which now runs six programs and employs about 30 people, who collectively speak more than 10 languages. It’s moved from the church to the historic Arts Building downtown to its current home at 3600 Main St., where offerings include mental health counseling, English as a second language and crime victim services.
The nonprofit will celebrate its past and look toward its future during a 25th anniversary celebration Thursday evening at the Red Cross Building.
Jasenka Cehajic has worked at the Vancouver branch for 21 years. She was first employed in 1998 to assist Bosnian refugees. Now, as the immigrant program coordinator, she says she remains busy despite the current climate around immigration and efforts to tamp down the number of newcomers coming to the country.
“There’s a lot of fear in the community, especially with the constant changes and new regulations being placed upon them. So many people are scared, calling in and asking what’s going on,” she said.
People are particularly concerned about the “public charge” rule that says the government will deny entry or green cards to immigrants if they’re likely at any time in the future to use public assistance, such as food stamps or housing vouchers; this is supposed to take effect in mid-October.
“We have to wait and see, but people are still fearful. Even if we tell them ‘this is not something that will be affecting you in any way,’ they still are fearful of applying for benefits,” Cehajic said.
Many Lutheran Community Services staff have been in their clients’ shoes.
“That’s what makes this job so successful … because we really feel how our clients are feeling,” Cehajic said.
Cehajic and her family were refugees, having first fled to Germany during the war in Bosnia. After the war, returning to Bosnia didn’t feel safe, and staying in Germany wasn’t an option, so she reached out to distant family in Vancouver.
“I never dreamed about coming to the United States,” she said. “We decided to take a chance.”
Since 1994, the Vancouver Lutheran Community Services Office has resettled more than 15,000 Russian-speaking refugees, as well as a smaller number of refugees from Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Burma.
Cehajic was a registered nurse in Bosnia, but working with immigrants and refugees has become her passion. She’s asked some of her clients to share their stories at Thursday’s celebration, including one woman who successfully got residency after 15 years as an undocumented immigrant. It’s rewarding whenever clients refer relatives to Lutheran Community Services Northwest for services, she said; it signals that over the decades, the agency has quietly built up trust within the community.
The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services office in Seattle has gotten so busy and had such lengthy delays that it couldn’t sustain the number of applicants. A couple of months ago, it began referring clients to the Portland office to reduce processing times. This is advantageous, because those in Vancouver seeking citizenship previously had to travel back and forth to Seattle for interviews and the ceremony.
“Instead of waiting more than a year now, they will be probably waiting about six months or less,” Cehajic said. “We are very busy. I just wish we had more space and more funding, so that we can hire more people and serve even more.”
One way she hopes to serve more people — and help more people become legal permanent residents and future U.S. citizens — is by becoming a fully-accredited representative of the Department of Justice. This means she can represent people in immigration court. Cehajic recently attended a training in Nashville, Tenn., along with three employees from the Portland office.
People often have trouble getting in touch with immigration attorneys or cannot afford one. Lutheran Community Services Northwest’s Vancouver office has one immigration attorney who is available once per week.
“People don’t know what to do, you know, how to represent themselves,” Cehajic said. “If people don’t get represented, then definitely they end up in deportation.”
Those without representation will have their hearings postponed and eventually be deported, she said. Cehajic sat in on immigration court in Portland and said four of the five cases she observed did not have representation, something that was “very painful to see.”
“Our goal is eventually to have more attorneys who can help us get more clients representation, and more staff,” Cehajic said.