With an American flag as a backdrop, 80-year-old Shmul Kaplan sat in a large armchair surrounded by family, friends and reporters — and, for the first time in his life, he greeted his visitors as an "official" American. Just moments before, Kaplan had raised his right hand and taken the oath of allegiance to the United States — the culmination of a long journey that included fleeing two countries where he'd faced frequent and often violent anti-Semitism and participating in a class-action lawsuit against the U.S. government.
"For 10 years, I wait for this day," said Kaplan, wearing a navy-blue wool suit, white shirt and matching blue tie during a Sept. 11 ceremony in a common room at his housing complex in Levittown. "Thank God, this day has come."
Kaplan moved here once he was granted asylum in 1997, after residing in Kazakhstan and then Russia, where he faced harsh treatment. His problems were compounded when the anti-Semitism turned violent; Kaplan is an amputee, having lost his right leg and severely injuring his left in a train accident when he 18.
Until 2004, Kaplan received Supplemental Security Income benefits of more than $600 per month; however, after an immigrant resides in America for seven years without becoming a naturalized citizen, the benefits are curtailed. That left the man to live on food stamps and $215 per month from welfare.
So he eventually became the lead plaintiff in a class-action lawsuit against the U.S. government, claiming that FBI security checks on new immigrants had become so backlogged since the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, that the organization could not evaluate immigrants before the seven-year period concluded, according to Judith Bernstein-Baker, executive director of HIAS and Council Migration Service of Philadelphia, who originally filed the suit.
Even before his loss of benefits, Kaplan wrote letter after letter to government officials and outreach groups, trying to be granted citizenship.
"He is the most persistent human being I ever met in my life," said Debbie Hoffman, a social worker at Galilee Village, Kaplan's housing complex.
Although his time in America has been filled with financial hardship, Kaplan noted that the acceptance he's felt here is a decided improvement over his previous life. In Kazakhstan, Kaplan taught math for 35 years and, although he got around on crutches or in a wheelchair, he was still ridiculed for being Jewish. He fared no better in Tver, Russia, where once, two boys pushed him into the snow and fled.
Though he struggles slightly with the language, Kaplan made sure to take his citizenship test in English. He got a perfect score.
"I don't know anyone who spent so much time studying English, studying American history," said Kaplan's son-in-law, Ilmir Moussikaeb.
Moussikaeb got a bit choked up when telling the audience of 40 or so people that Kaplan came here without dreams of success or luxury, but because he was looking for a place to call home.
"He finally became a real part of a country. He's never been 100 percent part of the country where he lived before," said Moussikaeb.
Now that he's a citizen, Kaplan plans to reapply for SSI benefits, which he should receive given that he is over 65, disabled and does not earn much money, said Bernstein-Baker. She added that he remains the lead plaintiff in the class-action suit, as he is a representative for others who have been denied benefits.
While she's happy that HIAS was able to help, she estimates that there could be as many as 12,000 other refugees and asylum-seekers in America who have lost SSI benefits because the seven-year window has closed.
"A disproportionate number are elderly Jews from the former Soviet Union," she said, many of whom live in Philadelphia.