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Senior citizens

Immigrants are proud to earn U.S. citizenship

Fira Litman left Belorussia in 1992, in part because she wasn't allowed to practice her religion of Judaism or even to hold certain jobs.

"The first time I ever went to synagogue was in New York in 1992," Litman said. "I'd been to secret services held in people's apartments, but there were no public services in Belorussia."

Although she earned her citizenship in 1999, Litman was at the Liberty Senior Center Wednesday to honor 66 of America's newest pioneers — seniors who earned their U.S. citizenship over the past year.

Like Litman, most of the seniors being honored knew little or no English when they left their native countries in search of a better life. They came from Colombia, Azarbaijan, Ukraine, Tonga, Vietnam, Russia, Bosnia and Mexico, among others countries, to join "a nation of immigrants who have a vision of better lives," in the words of one volunteer teacher.

Walking around the center, it was hard to know whether to say "hello," "hola," or ask how to say hello in Tongan or Vietnamese.

Maybe "congratulations" was best.

Salt Lake County Mayor Nancy Workman said she was "honored to see people who have worked so hard to earn their citizenship. It just warms my heart."

Over dinner, Litman described the overwhelming experience of first arriving in the United States that is probably shared by many immigrants.

"When we got off the plane, I couldn't find my luggage. There were signs, but I couldn't read any of them," Litman said. She said someone eventually understood her gesturing and led her by the hand to the baggage carousel.

Like many of the seniors honored, Litman said it was hard to learn a second language so late in life.

"I started (learning English) at age 69," Litman said. "It is very difficult for me. Frequently, I wonder what is going on around me. I don't understand the radio or TV."

She also said she appreciated America because it is "democratic, friendly, and there is freedom of religion." She said she came to Salt Lake City because her husband's brother was here.

Almost all of the seniors in attendance were students of the English as a Second Language Program sponsored by Salt Lake County Aging Services and the Literacy Volunteers of America. Carol Janiga, who runs the ESL program, said she was just happy to see her students recognized for their hard work.

"It was exciting to see so many people here, more than we expected," Janiga said. "I love working with these people. They're very special to me. They're generous, warm, and they're so grateful to be in America."

Janiga added that a large percentage of the seniors in ESL classes end up volunteering for a number of programs run by Aging Services, including the foster grandparent program, in which seniors are paired with at-risk teenagers, and the senior companions program, in which seniors are paired with others seniors who lack companionship.

Carolyn Scharffenberg, the Healthy Aging program manager, said classes for seniors were crucial to the success of many new immigrants.

"If some of these elders go to classes with mainly younger people, they'll just get swallowed up," Scharffenberg said. "Some of them don't learn as quickly, and they get intimidated and may not continue."

She said the ESL classes are just one part of what Aging Services offers to seniors. There are medical services offered and also a focus on helping senior citizens to remain independent for as long as possible.

For some immigrants, Scharffenberg said, it's important to make sure they're interacting with others.

"Looking around the room, you can see there are a lot of single, elderly women," she said. "It's easy for them to become isolated, especially if they don't know the language. We want to make sure they're interacting with society so they feel a part of it. That's what this is all about."

Scharffenberg couldn't resist adding, "We always need volunteers. We can teach people how to do this, but we could not exist without volunteers."

For more information call Carol Janiga at 801-468-2857.

E-mail: wbettmann@desnews.com