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After failing the citizenship exam eight times, this migrant is calling for the law to change

Lebanese migrant Radwan Sharaf with his daughter. Source: Supplied

A Lebanese migrant who has failed the Australian citizenship exam eight times believes that literacy exemptions need to be considered for people in his situation.

Obtaining Australian citizenship has been a “dream” that Lebanese father-of-two Radwan Sharaf has held since arriving in 2009.

The 39-year-old works as a house painter and relies on his job to support his family. 

On his job site, he communicates with his clients in English, and is proud of what he has learnt since arriving.

But it has been his inability to read and write in English and Arabic which has placed a roadblock in his path to obtaining citizenship.

Radwan Sharaf son and daughter
Radwan Sharaf's son and daughter

He has tried and failed the Australian citizenship exam on eight occasions, and his constant failures have placed added pressure and anxiety on him.

“I have taken the test eight times - eight. My English is non-existent. My parents were poor and didn’t even teach me Arabic, so imagine how my English is," he said.

"If one is illiterate, what does he do? Kill himself? If someone has a poor family, one should not be ashamed of being poor. I left school to help my father and mother earn a living, I am not ashamed of that, but [the Australian government] must consider the poor.”

To pass the exam, an applicant must answer 75 per cent of the 20 English questions correctly.

Of the 127,898 applicants who sat the exam in 2018-19, 6149 people failed, according to statistics provided by the Department of Home Affairs.

The figures showed that 2922 people failed the exam three times or more, while the highest number of failures for an individual was registered in New South Wales, where the applicant failed 20 times.

Citizenship test statistics for 2018-19 by State/Territory
Citizenship test statistics for 2018-19 by State/Territory, provided by the Department of Home Affairs
Department of Home Affairs

Mr Sharaf said the federal government needed to consider easing its regulations regarding the test, and perhaps running the exam in languages other than English, just as in the United States where some applicants can sit the exam in Spanish.

"I ask the government to bring in an Arabic translator to translate the exam. The applicant has studied the exam materials in Arabic, why is all this pressure on me?"

"I passed my driving test [on the first attempt], the exam was in Arabic and I was able to memorise it."

A spokesperson from the Department of Home Affairs told SBS Arabic24: “The Australian Citizenship Act 2007 requires applicants to have a basic knowledge of English. The citizenship test is not available in languages other than English.”

The spokesperson said the department “recognises that some people may experience difficulty in passing the test” and that there are a “range of measures in place” to assist, including:

“A resource booklet ‘Our Common Bond’, which is available on the Department’s website. It contains all the information applicants require to pass the citizenship test, including sample test questions, and is available in 37 languages.

“Help for applicants in operating the computer can be provided when undertaking the standard citizenship test on an ‘as-needs’ basis.

“An ‘Assisted Test’ is offered to some applicants who have been assessed as having insufficient reading ability to complete the test, if they have completed 400 hours of English language tuition under the Adult Migrant English Program (AMEP).”

The spokesperson added that test exemptions are available to those under 18 years or over 60 years of age, or for people who “suffer incapacity or impairment”.

Although admitting that the assisting procedures appear to be appropriate, Mr Sharaf said it does not take into account illiterate people who do not know how to read and write at all. 

He recalls that the citizenship process previously allowed those who failed the exam three times to attend lectures on life in Australia before taking the exam again.

Freedom of movement was one of the key reasons that Mr Sharaf hoped to obtain citizenship.

He said he would continue to attempt the exam, but had a message for the Australian government. 

“My message to the minister of immigration is, instead of awarding citizenship to those who learn about the parliament, do a character check instead. Did that person cause trouble? Did he assaulted someone?

"If his record is clean, award him with citizenship. What good is knowing information about the law, the national anthem or the parliament if someone steals, or does drugs. Since I arrived in this country and I have worked and paid my taxes. The government should take this into consideration.”

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