Help for Nashville's Elder Refugees is in Jeopardy
Asfaw Hubtewold isn't yet fluent in English, but there's one word he knows well - and it's one he prefers to shout.
"Bingo!" calls the 84-year-old refugee immigrant from Ethiopia.
"Bingo! Bingo!" he repeats, reliving a winning moment from the brown recliner in his living room and tapping into the simple magic of a game that translates well across borders and language barriers.
It's just one way Hubtewold has gotten to know America in the seven years since he fled Africa with his wife and six adult children. But it's part of an aid program that could be in trouble because of the roiling immigration debate taking place nationally.
Hubtewold and a few dozen "elder refugees" - typically 55 or older - receive special help to get comfortable in Nashville. Two specially designed programs teach English and life skills at a senior's pace, and also prepare older refugees to take the citizenship test.
Hubtewold has benefited from weekly classes, one-on-one help with daily needs and regular field trips to true American institutions - art centers, presidential homes, bowling alleys and even a pumpkin farm.
Federal funding expanded Nashville's elder refugee services a year ago, but the opposite threat now looms. The increase in children illegally crossing the southwestern U.S. border may divert some money. Tennessee refugee programs could lose $1.6 million from a budget of $11 million, including about $100,000 for the elderly support program.
But with that outcome unknown, the daily work continues in the already lean programs. After all, said Andrea Prince, elder specialist for Catholic Charities of Tennessee, the latest funding doubt isn't that different from the last one. Or the one before that. And the locals don't get much say.
"We've seen this before," Prince said. "That happens fairly often in refugee services."
Services that make a difference
At stake, though, are services that can make a tangible difference in quality of life, helping refugees learn the language and the culture, along with practical assistance with budgeting, health care and free transportation. And then there are all of the intangibles of getting out of the home to mingle with other refugees and Americans - often around the bingo table.
"I think bingo is the universal language for old people," said Grant Yoder, laughing as he described the elders program he runs for the Center for Refugees and Immigrants of Tennessee. "The people in my class always ask for it."
Of the two programs for the elderly, Yoder's is the newest - launched in January 2013 with a federal grant of about $50,000 each year. Yoder and a group of bilingual community liaisons teach weekly classes and organize field trips, including to the fire department and the Nissan plant.
Most of his students are Burmese and Somali refugees, and few grew up with any form of organized schooling.
"It's challenging in some ways, but they're also eager to learn," Yoder said.
In a recent class, a dozen students learned how to talk about the weather forecast - the universal conversation starter.
Grasping to get one point across, Yoder drew an umbrella on the whiteboard.
This is the point where tidbits emerge that help him along - as when the students put their native words to use for "hot" and "cold."
Bowling and kickboxing
Prince takes pride in the physicality of her elders program: a hike at Radnor Lake, laps around the East Park Community Center elevated track, and a first attempt - for many - at bowling.
Hubtewold said he liked those. But his favorite? When words failed him, he slipped back into exclamations.
"Pop pop! Pop pop!" said Hubtewold, punching into the air to imitate the kickboxing class the elders tried.
When words fail, it's easy to forget that these are people who, at an advanced age, have embraced the challenge of learning the most basic skills. If they seem like beginners, they are undertaking an effort that would come as a challenge to anyone - and doing so in a way that leaves the folks helping them with a sense of awe.
"There's those aspects where it's the same things my grandparents would do," Prince said. "We're also a bit unique in how active and mobile our clients are. Our seniors love to be out and active and they're curious."
At the Frist Center for the Visual Arts, for example, the elders like to make their own art in the Martin Artquest area - typically for children.
Her group also goes monthly to Fifty Forward for exercise and bingo.
For refugees who might otherwise feel isolated at home, Prince sees them making friendships with one another and their communities.
"They really enjoy interacting with the community, and they like telling the community about who they are," she said.
Of course, they must also turn to serious study, especially for the citizenship exam. For refugees who want to qualify for government benefits, they must become citizens before their eighth year in America.
"And as you get older, (the test) doesn't get any easier. Time is working against you," Prince said.
For Hubtewold, a former mechanic, his memory isn't what it used to be.
"After 50 years, my head no work," he said. "It leak. Leak."
He hasn't passed the test in three prior efforts. He said he had problems hearing one time. He couldn't remember America's longest river, the Mississippi, another time.
In addition to verbal and written portions of the test, he'll need to correctly answer six of 10 questions pulled from a list of 100.
With Prince quizzing him in the living room, he said he's sure he'll pass in the next few months.
He hits a good streak with Prince, correctly naming George Washington and Joe Biden in rapid succession in response to questions.
Then he waved quickly, asking for more.
Reach Tony Gonzalez at 615-259-8089 or on Twitter @tgonzalez.
The elder refugees program through Catholic Charities takes immigrants over 55 to attractions in the Nashville area.
A program at risk
» $11 million: The annual budget for Tennessee refugee services
» $100,000: The portion of yearly funds for elderly refugees
» $1.6 million: The potential federal cut to Tennessee