From Tunisia to Amherst: One man’s path to US citizenship

  • Mohamed Ben Slama works at his job painting houses in Amherst. On July 4, 2019 he will take an oath of allegiance to the United States at a naturalization ceremony in Northampton. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Mohamed Ben Slama, an immigrant from Tunisia who lives in Amherst, at Amherst Town Hall, Tuesday, July 2, 2019. He will take part in the annual naturalization ceremony on the lawn of the Hampshire County Courthouse on July 4. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Mohamed Ben Slama works at his job painting houses in Amherst. On July 4, 2019 he will take an oath of allegiance to the United States at a naturalization ceremony in Northampton. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Mohamed Ben Slama, an immigrant from Tunisia who lives in Amherst, at Amherst Town Hall, Tuesday, July 2, 2019. He will take part in the annual naturalization ceremony on the lawn of the Hampshire County Courthouse, July 4. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Mohamed Ben Slama works at his job painting houses in Amherst. On July 4, 2019 he will take an oath of allegiance to the United States at a naturalization ceremony in Northampton. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Mohamed Ben Slama, an immigrant from Tunisia who lives in Amherst, at Amherst Town Hall, Tuesday, July 2, 2019. He will take part in the annual naturalization ceremony on the lawn of the Hampshire County Courthouse, July 4. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Mohamed Ben Slama, an immigrant from Tunisia who lives in Amherst, at Amherst Town Hall, Tuesday, July 2, 2019. He will take part in the annual naturalization ceremony on the lawn of the Hampshire County Courthouse on July 4. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

Staff Writer
Published: 7/3/2019 12:05:08 PM

AMHERST — When Mohamed Ben Slama moved from his native Tunisia to the United States in 2012, he was just 23-years-old and spoke little English. He had his own painting business back home but had to start everything from scratch in Amherst.

“It was very hard,” he said. “I didn’t speak any English at that time, I didn’t have anybody here, I had to find a job.”

Ben Slama left Tunisia with his ex-wife, an American, when the two had a daughter together. And now, after almost eight years living in the Pioneer Valley, he will join around 50 other immigrants who are becoming citizens at a swearing-in ceremony at the Hampshire County Courthouse on July 4. His daughter will be one of the hundreds expected to attend the event.

“I’m excited!” he said. “She’s excited too, she’s happy to come with me.”

The ceremony is organized yearly by the Center for New Americans, an organization that helps immigrants in western Massachusetts like Ben Slama navigate the complex process of naturalization.

That process includes a test on civics and government that could feature any 10 of the 100 difficult questions applicants have to commit to memory. 

“The other thing is you have to prove that you can function in the English language, so there’s both a written and an oral component to that,” said Susan McIntosh, 79, of Huntington. McIntosh is a tutor with the Center for New Americans who has worked with Ben Slama for the last several years.

“I learned all the 100 questions,” Ben Slama said. He joked that he now probably knows more about U.S. civics and history than many other Americans. “I know about everything about World War I, World War II … everything!”

When Ben Slama first took the test last year, he said the man who gave him the test failed him for no reason. 

“I passed the questions, I passed the test, he failed me for my paperwork stuff,” Ben Slama said. “He felt powerful … I was nothing there.”

But after working with McIntosh, he went back this year and passed the test. He said the test administrators couldn't understand why somebody would have failed him in the first place. 

Ben Slama said he is just relieved to have made it through the hardship. And it certainly wasn’t an easy process, McIntosh added.

“He would come in covered in paint-stained clothing,” she said. “And he would come in after a full day of work, sit down and focus on all this stuff.”

Now that he has finished the challenges of becoming a citizen, Ben Slama said he plans to shift his focus to his painting career.

“I want to open my own business,” he said. “I’ve been doing painting for a long time." 

He also hopes to bring his mom over to the United States for a visit. 

“I would like to take her to nice places,” he said. “Anywhere fun, to the beach. Maybe New York.”

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.


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