Immigrants are there for these retirees. So the retirees decided to be there for them.
Originally Published in The Washington Post
Petula Dvorak – September 20, 2021
And because that’s what they hear so often — the sounds of Sierra Leone, Cameroon, Haiti, Jamaica — these residents decided to do something extraordinary for the migrants who take such good care of them, who treat their senior status with an honor and value that our youth-worshipping, throwaway culture too often neglects.
One of every four workers in long-term care facilities are immigrants. They are about 17 percent of the nation’s entire medical workforce. Thanks to the forces of economics and geopolitics, most of the folks taking care of us, our parents and our grandparents are immigrants.
And even more are needed, especially as we plunge deeper into the pandemic and the health care workforce becomes more strained.
“It’s a crisis,” said Anne Stewart, 79, a resident at Goodwin House in a suburban part of Northern Virginia called Baileys Crossroads who loves talking to the workers to learn about their lives.
“And what are we doing?” Stewart said, before pulling down her mask so I could hear her stage whisper, “We’re deporting them.”
So they decided to help in the best way they could, with one resident, Rita Siebenaler, leading an effort that turned nearly 90 employees of the Goodwin Houses in Baileys Crossroads and in Alexandria into nearly 90 new American citizens.
Siebenaler, 78, is well-versed in the immigrant struggle, as a social worker who counseled in Thailand, Germany and Russia throughout her career.
And she was shocked when she read that the path to U.S. citizenship was becoming even more difficult because fees were increasing for immigrants.
A federal judge blocked that increase, but at $725, it’s still a big number for folks struggling to get a foothold in a new life.
“My grandmother came here as an indentured servant and I couldn’t find anywhere that she even paid a fee,” Siebenaler said. “And we felt this was just wrong.”
So she proposed that residents help pay the citizenship fees for the immigrants who take care of their apartments, cook their food, and take care of their medical needs.
She ran into some bureaucracy issues, but used diplomacy and her wits to get around the roadblocks and found a champion in the Goodwin House administration.
Within two weeks, she raised $40,000 from residents and had the full backing of the community’s administration to promote her plan.
And the residents raised their hands to volunteer. They tutored the health aides, housekeepers and cooks, drilling them on spelling, the constitutional amendments, the writers of the Federalist papers, the rights of U.S. citizens and other questions on the citizenship test that huge percentages of American-born citizens who call themselves patriots would flunk.
The head of the Goodwin House Foundation, Valerie Burke, is trying to promote the program to other retirement communities, to folks who may need a little guidance in understanding the potential for connections and mutual enrichment.
“Alexandra helped me study,” said Miranda Tangie, 33, naming the resident who tutored her for her citizenship exam. Tangie had studied to be a teacher in her native Cameroon, “but teachers weren’t treated so nicely back there.”
She decided to enter the lottery for a U.S. visa and she got a spot, but would have to leave her twins behind, in her mother’s care. She took a chance.
“I want a good life for them,” she said. Six years later, she’s a beloved caregiver in the Goodwin House hospice program, received tuition assistance from Goodwin House for classes and certification, is scheduled to take her oath of citizenship next week, and is looking for an affordable home for herself and her twin boys, who are now 7 years old.
“The people are always smiling and so kind to us here,” she said. “And they changed my life.”
The groundskeeper from Haiti told them how much he loves all their smiles. “I want to live here when I retire,” Wilner Vialer told them.
The cafeteria worker from Jamaica said she never had grandparents growing up. “But I have so many grandparents now,” Nicola Stevens told the residents who helped her, who nagged her to study as her citizenship test came up.
There was something comfortable about the way the workers and residents mingled after the citizenship ceremony the Goodwin House folks threw for their new citizens last week. They know one another’s kids and grandkids, they share stories. They’re not oceans apart.
Siebenaler boiled it down for me, the rapport between these two seemingly disparate groups of people. The immigrants want to be in a place where they are valued. And in a nation where families can be separated by hundreds or thousands of miles, where the elderly are often warehoused and forgotten, the senior citizens are looking for the same thing — to be valued.
“Many of them come from cultures where seniors are more revered than they are here,” she said. “It’s mutually beneficial.”
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