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Language Barrier

Some elderly immigrants face losing benefits they've relied on for seven years. And many don't know a change is coming.

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"I feel very bad for her," says her son, Minh Tran. "In our old neighborhood, they would go for tea to their friends. Here it's like they've been in jail or prison."

Tran's plight is similar to that of many elderly immigrants living in the United States. They are overwhelmed by the language barrier and starved for the camaraderie they left behind.

And if they don't learn enough English to pass the U.S. citizenship test, they could soon lose their health and Social Security benefits and eligibility for other public-assistance programs, such as food stamps.

In 1996, Congress passed a law prohibiting noncitizens from receiving benefits for more than seven years, because of concerns that more than half of Social Security payments were going to immigrants. Those who arrived before Aug. 22, 1996, get to keep their benefits. But for those who came later, Aug. 22, 2003, marks the beginning of the end of their means of support.

In the Richmond area, 50 to 60 refugees who have depended on government money and healthcare for support suddenly may find themselves facing an uncertain future, says Kathleen Jackson, director of the Richmond office of Refugee and Immigration Services, part of the Catholic Diocese of Richmond.

Why not encourage them to become citizens, so they can keep their benefits? It's not that simple, Jackson says. Learning new things is difficult for the elderly, especially those like Noi Tran who don't speak English.

To qualify for U.S. citizenship, applicants must demonstrate they can read, write and speak English. They also must show that they know the fundamentals of U.S. history and government by answering questions ranging from the simple ("What are the colors of our flag?") to the more involved ("Name three rights or freedoms guaranteed by the Bill of Rights.").

"You don't worry about the young people," Jackson says. Usually they're able to learn enough to pass the exam. But their parents and grandparents have a tougher time. And although the deadline that will begin severing benefits is approaching fast, many are in denial. "They can't believe they're going to be cut off," Jackson says. "They don't understand our system."

Tommy P. Baer, a Richmond attorney with 20 years' experience in assisting immigrants, says he hasn't seen a recent increase in queries from noncitizens about losing benefits. "My guess is that unfortunately, many of these immigrants are just unaware of the statute," he says. "There needs to be a vehicle by which they are notified."

Jackson says some believe they'll be fine with the support of their families. But "nine times out of 10," she says, families also rely on the benefits the elderly receive, pooling government money with the income that younger members bring in. Supporting the elderly on their own, with the prohibitively high cost of healthcare, could be "devastating," she says.

"We're going to have the family members coming and saying 'What do we do? What do we do?' We don't know how it's going to play out," Jackson says. So now, her office is doing its best to save immigrants from getting lost in the transition.

Instructors are conducting more citizenship classes and visiting homebound immigrants. The diocese office has been recruiting more interpreters, both paid and volunteer, to translate and teach English. Finding enough people can be a challenge, as immigrants and refugees come to Richmond from a wide array of nations. Since January 2003, the local office has served 350 immigrants and refugees, Jackson says — 242 adults and 108 children. They hail from Bosnia, Cambodia, China, Colombia, Cuba, Haiti, Iran, Somalia, Sudan, Tanzania, Uzbekistan, the former Soviet Union and other nations.

Paying for services for these immigrants is another problem, Jackson says. The State Department gives the office $400 per refugee arriving each year, to pay for their rent, food and basic needs.

The Richmond area has received 12 refugees thus far in 2003, along with 19 political asylees. The asylees are reclassified as refugees once they arrive in the country, Jackson says, but the office receives no federal money for them. The diocese also contributes, as does the United Way and other nonprofits, but loss of funding still has forced recent cutbacks.

The office is trying to obtain disability waivers for a few clients and arrange for others to take their citizenship test in their native language. Minh Tran is hoping the diocese can obtain a waiver for his mother — he has little confidence that she can learn enough English to pass the citizenship test.

Others will just try their best. Bosnian refugee Alija Harbas, 83, now lives in Newport News with his family. He's been in the United States since last May. The highlight of his day is walking to get the mail. Harbas stands near the mailboxes, wearing a Bosnian hat that resembles a beret, until the mail carrier arrives. If the weather is nice, he sits outside in the grassy area next to his apartment.

Through a translator, Harbas says he likes the United States. It's nicer than the refugee camps. His family has decorated its apartment with lace curtains and patterned rugs to make him remember home.

"I would like to keep busy," Harbas says. "I worked back home." But he's not sure he's capable of learning English.

"I'm old," he says.

He has asked the Catholic Diocese to find a Bosnian translator — someone who knows English and his native language. He hopes his plan will work. He doesn't want to lose his benefits or remain cut off from the rest of the country. "I will try hard," he says. "I try hard."

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