Calixto Hernandez came to the United States from Cuba three months ago after being granted asylum by the U.S. government. He was a political prisoner in Cuba from 1960 to 1975. He is a 73-year-old widower with three daughters and a son, none of whom live in the U.S., yet he wants to make Louisville his new home.
“I will not go back to Cuba,” said Hernandez. “I want to be in America forever.”
Hernandez is one of many elderly refugees who participates in the Louisville Refugee Elder Program, a resource that provides English classes and tutoring to help refugees work toward passing the U.S. citizenship Naturalization Test. Classes are held in the basement of the Highland United Methodist Church and consist of refugees from Bhutan, Burma, Cuba, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Iran, Iraq, Russia, Sudan, and Vietnam.
The Elder Program is a joint program between Kentucky Refugee Ministries and Catholic Charities. KRM is a resettlement agency. When refugees first arrive at the airport, KRM volunteers meet them and provide them with furnished apartments. KRM provides a number of services to refugees, helping them apply for Social Security cards and food stamps, offering English as a second language classes, assisting them in finding employment, and getting refugee children enrolled in school. Through KRM, immigration attorneys are available to help refugees obtain green cards, schedule citizenship interviews, and bring family members to the U.S.
Abby Webb, the services to refugee elders coordinator, explained the significance of relocation for these individuals.
“It’s such a different world for them,” said Webb. “When Hernandez arrived in America, one of the first questions he asked me was about how the American food rations system worked.”
Miralia Saavedra Brito also came to the U.S. from Cuba as a political refugee and recently moved from North Carolina to Louisville to be near a larger Spanish speaking population.
“Here everything is good,” said Saavedra Brito. “There is no liberty in Cuba.”
Once elderly refugees have been in the U.S. for 30 days, they become eligible for Social Security benefits. However, the continued support of Social Security is not guaranteed for refugees over the age of 65. After five years of residency in the U.S., a refugee is eligible to take the Naturalization Test. This exam is broken down into two sections: civics and English. The civics portion covers American government, integrated civics, and American history, while the English section tests reading, writing, and speaking in English. If refugees remain in America for seven years without passing the Naturalization Test, their Social Security benefits will be taken away. This is a serious concern for many refugees, as passing the test can be incredibly challenging.
“The older you get, the harder it is to learn a new language,” said Webb.
Roberto de Armas Pena recently passed his Naturalization Test. He is one of the more fortunate refugees and his entire family is here with him. His wife, daughter, son-in-law, and four grandchildren all live in Louisville. In Cuba, he was imprisoned for 10 years because of his religious beliefs.
“Over there the communists don’t believe in God,” said de Armas Pena. “I was arrested 15 times because of my religion.”
However, success like de Armas Pena’s is not the norm. Webb expressed her concern that many refugees will not be able to pass the exam when the time comes for them to take it.
“I would say only 2 percent of the refugee elders in our program speak English fluently,” said Webb.
Many refugees are not even able to read and write in their native language, let alone in English. For these refugees, it is highly unlikely that they will be able to develop the English skills necessary to pass the test.
It can also be challenging for the teachers to work with refugees who are not fluent in English. Many of the refugees have younger relatives who speak English and Elder Program staff members often send notes home in order to successfully communicate a message. Occasionally the program brings in guest speakers with interpreters. Staff members utilize these interpreters to their advantage.
“I tend to give lots of important information on those days,” said Webb.
However, most of the time, family members and interpreters are not available. Webb and other staff members have learned to be creative in order to communicate.
“I use a lot of hand gestures,” said Webb.
Gesticulations are not only used between staff members and refugees, but also between refugees who come from different countries. They often communicate via exaggerated pantomimes and encouraging nods.
The program is two hours long, running from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays. However, people begin arriving as early as 8:30 a.m.
“The students love being here,” said Webb. “For people that come early, we’ve got crafts and puzzles out, as well as word games they use to practice their English.”
Modhr Omran, an Iraqi refugee, has been in the U.S. for 11 months and is enjoying his ESL classes.
“I am very happy to learn English,” said Omran.
The students are split into four classroom groups based on their English ability. The instructors and volunteers teach for two hours with a 15 minute snack break. There are eight individuals who currently volunteer on a regular basis in the classrooms.
“Additional staff also comes from Kentucky Refugee Ministries and Catholic Charities,” said Webb.
The program varies each week. Sometimes speakers – such as immigration attorneys, nurse practitioners, mental health specialists, librarians, and TARC staff members – visit the classrooms. The group also takes field trips. In May, they took a tour of Louisville Slugger Field. The Elder Program also has a mentoring aspect. Volunteers are matched with students and then meet one-on-one to practice English and study citizenship materials.
If more funding became available, Webb would love to expand the program to three or more days a week.
“They would benefit greatly from more class time,” said Webb. “Many elderly refugees don’t have much else to do, so they just sit at home the other days of the week.”
Webb also discussed adding another level of English class if there was funding.
“There is a big gap between the third and fourth levels,” said Webb. “And many people never make it to the fourth, so the third level class is very large.”
Most of the students do not have cars and rely solely on public transportation.
“We provide bus tickets so they can take the TARC,” said Webb.
Some volunteers also drive students if they have disabilities or live far from a bus stop.
Art is an important part of the Elder Program. Joyce Ogden, an art therapist, joins every other Tuesday and leads a specific language group in an art therapy session. Ogden believes in the healing power of art. She feels it allows the refugees to express themselves and build self-esteem.
“It doesn’t matter how good they are,” said Ogden. “Just doing art is healthy.”
One Elder Program success story comes from a student from Cuba named Lazaro. Lazaro was an artist and, after showcasing his art at Catholic Charities and KRM events, he began to show his work in local galleries around Louisville. When the time came, he successfully passed his citizenship exam.
The Elder Program recently received a grant from the Kentucky Arts Council to expand the arts section of the program, which will allow for more art field trips and speakers and more opportunities for artists like Lazaro.
At the end of every class, the refugees file out of the classrooms with smiles on their faces, thanking Webb and the other staff and volunteers for the opportunity to come to the Elder Program. Although these refugees have suffered immense hardships and overcome many obstacles to arrive in the U.S., resiliency and optimism seem to be the resounding sentiments found among the students in the program.
After being a political prisoner for 15 years and finding himself living apart from his family in a foreign country, Hernandez boasted about his young looking face.
“It is because of my love of life,” said Hernandez.
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