Most people think of retiring by the time they’re 60 - taking it easy, relaxing at home, playing with the grandkids.
But that’s the furthest thing from Eulio Marquez’s mind.
He just wants to learn English, he said, and adjust to a new way of life.
Marquez is 66 and a refugee from Cuba. He moved to Spokane in May 1997 with his wife, Fransisca Delgado.
The two spent their lives raising four sons and fixing their home near Havana. Because of religious persecution, they left all that behind.
It’s hard enough for most people to leave their native country. But it’s even tougher for senior citizens, people who - in their 60s and 70s - are forced to speak a new language and start over in a foreign land.
Experts say the learning window for a second language is from birth to age 10. Imagine the difficulty as an elderly immigrant.
“The first day here is like a newborn baby starting in a new world,” Marquez said through an interpreter. “It’s really hard to change. We’ve left everything for a completely new life.”
There are thousands like them.
In 1996, about 22,300 of the refugees who received permanent residence status in the United States were 55 and older, according to the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service. That’s up by nearly 60 percent since 1990.
Learning English becomes their biggest obstacle, the refugees say. Their age makes it difficult, said Delgado, who’s 54. Her memory often fails her, she said, and she can’t pronounce the words.
Like Delgado and Marquez, dozens of older refugees in Spokane labor through grammar and vocabulary that most Americans learned in first and second grades. They take English as a Second Language classes or receive weekly lessons from volunteers.
“(English) is completely different from Spanish,” Marquez said. “I’m already old and can’t learn well.”
But he doesn’t have a choice, he said. They’re Jehovah’s Witnesses. They can’t go back to Cuba.
‘They lose their identity’
Years of trauma sometimes get in the way of learning.
Zoya Samolovov is 68 years old, a survivor of Stalin’s death camps in northern Siberia. She’s a thin, frail woman with silvery hair and blue eyes that gleam against her pale skin.
Samolovov has many painful stories: Out of 11 children, she and her eldest sister were the only ones who lived through the purges in the ‘30s; she spent months in jail during the ‘50s for being a Baptist; after her husband died in 1971, she raised 10 children alone.
Merilee Moser, who teaches ESL through Lutheran World Relief, has heard similar stories - people in danger of being killed, who lived with disease and malnutrition, who spent years trekking in the jungles of Cambodia.
“There’s so much culture shock,” she said.
The environment in which they now live isn’t always helpful, said Doug Mayhew, a linguistic expert and ESL instructor for the Institute for Extended Learning.
“We live in a country where most people don’t speak another language and they don’t understand what (refugees) are going through,” he said. “It’s stressful for them. Even a social function is straining. They suffer from isolation and depression. They lose their identity.”
That’s why many hang on to their native tongue. “It’s the only lifeline they’ve got,” Mayhew said.
Since her arrival in 1992, Samolovov has learned enough English to pass the citizenship test. She doesn’t speak English well, but she can write and understand.
“I like English,” she said in Russian one afternoon as she showed off her new U.S. passport.
Like Samolovov, many older refugees want to learn English because they wish to be American citizens. Because of welfare reform, many feared that they would be cut off from Supplemental Security Income, a federal program that gives money to many of the nation’s elderly and disabled. To continue receiving benefits, refugees have to become citizens and pass an English test.
Late last summer, the federal government decided to continue giving SSI benefits to elderly and disabled refugees who aren’t citizens. Still, many continue to learn English. They don’t want to take any chances.
New INS rules have made it easier for those refugees who have lived here for at least 15 years: If you’re 55, you’re exempt from the English requirements when taking the citizenship test, said Robert Walker of the INS. If you’re 65 and have lived here for 20 years, you don’t have to take the history and government tests.
But the changes don’t apply to people like Samolovov and other recently arrived refugees.
For the most part, they just want to get by - to take the bus and not get lost, to buy groceries and have enough money, to go to the doctor and explain where it hurts.
“We live here now,”said Klavdiya Verkhovoda, a 70-year-old from Russia who has been taking ESL and citizenship classes for five years.
For Anatoliy Solodyankin, another 70-year-old Russian native, learning English and becoming a citizen are important aspects of belonging.
“I lost my citizenship at home,” he said through an interpreter. “So now I belong to no country.”
Flash cards and vowel charts
Moser, the ESL teacher, stood up and gestured wildly.
“Sweep,” she said, pretending to clean the floor with an invisible broom.
Fransisca Delgado giggled. “My mind isn’t good today,” she later said, followed by a sigh.
Despite the hardships of learning English and adjusting to a new life, she has few regrets about coming to Spokane.
There wasn’t enough food in Cuba, Delgado said. They often ate from the fruit trees in their backyard. She couldn’t work because of her ulcerated legs, the result of diabetes. Marquez, once a laborer at a banana plantation, suffered a stroke.
Moser, who works part-time for World Relief, teaches the Cuban couple once a week in their Browne’s Addition apartment.
She uses flash cards, drawings, her handy vowel chart. Sometimes she’s on her knees, drawing with a felt-tip marker on a board.
“I exaggerate; I act silly,” said Moser, who started teaching English 10 years ago to Japanese kids. “I use a lot of repetition. When people are older, they need to hear it 50, 60 times.”
Marquez wasn’t as excited about the lesson. He repeated after Moser, but had a hard time answering questions.
“What time is it?” Moser asked, pointing to a clock she drew.
“A la una,” Marquez said, forgetting how to say “one o’clock.”
When learning languages, you use the face, neck and throat muscles, which have to be retrained when you’re learning a new one, Moser said. “They don’t work quite as well like when you were young. … The older you get, the less you hear the different sounds.”
It takes eight years for a nonnative to reach a point where he or she can compete with a native speaker for employment, Mayhew said. “Refugees are lucky if they get nine months before they have to work. … They’re faced with an unrealistic situation.”
Solodyankin, who learns by listening to a tape, jokes about being jealous of his grandchildren. They learn so quickly, he said. When they speak in front of him, they seem to have a secret language.
“I just want to have a simple conversation,” said Solodyankin, who left Russia because of religious persecution. Learning English “helps me feel good. It gives me self-esteem.”
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