Russian as a Second Language

Russian as a Second Language

Students aid influx of immigrants in Boston

By Sean Smith
Staff Writer

A surge this decade in the number of Russians, many of them elderly, emigrating to Boston has created a need among local agencies and organizations for volunteers to aid the new arrivals' transition to American life, and BC students have been among those who have answered the call.

They are teaching English-as-a-second-language classes, assisting with the naturalization process, even offering help in everyday matters like reading bus timetables and dealing with junk mail. For the students, the experience is a highly effective and practical means of learning Russian - and acquiring surrogate grandparents in the bargain.

Sophomore Jessica Dickman (left) and graduate student Sabine Schneider lead an ESL class for Russian women in Brighton this week. (Lee Pellegrini photo)
"It's just so much fun to be with them," said senior Jessica Dickman, who leads an ESL class in Brighton for a small group of Russian women, all over 70. "They're very excited to learn English, but also to talk about, for example, what an American family might do on their vacation, or other aspects of life here."

"It's a wonderful kind of sharing," said Judy Sacks, director of refugee employment services for Boston's Jewish Vocational Services, one of the organizations through which BC students have worked with Russian immigrants. "College students, inevitably, find something very enjoyable about spending time with an elderly person. The seniors, meanwhile, appreciate the energy and personableness of the students."

The Neighborhood Center also has provided opportunities for students, including Dickman, to meet Russian immigrants, while the Slavic and Eastern Languages Department has been particularly active for a number of years, according to department Chairman Assoc. Prof. Michael Connolly.

In previous years, Connolly said, most of the immigrants BC students worked with tended to be educated professionals, middle-aged or younger, who had left their country for ideological or religious reasons. English instruction was not necessarily the greatest need for this particular group, which had a greater need for help in dealing with the red tape of resettlement and naturalization.

"Once that generation became established, they started bringing over parents, grandparents and other older relatives," explained Connolly. "This new group of immigrants often come from marginalized areas of Russia and tend to lack the education, professional qualifications and connections of those before them. Their needs are, therefore, broader and greater."

Sacks estimates that Boston was resettling approximately 1,400 Russian immigrants a year from 1988-89 until a dip in the mid- to late-1990s, although the number seems to be on the rise again due to the country's social and economic unrest.

For Sara Davidson, a senior studying in Poland this semester, her three years of tutoring Russian immigrants in Allston were helpful in ways she has only recently come to realize.

"The chance to speak with native speakers offers a unique and essential part of learning Russian and the exposure my 'students' have given me to Russian culture _ and food _ has been equally wonderful," said Davidson. "They face enormous difficulties with the process of acculturating themselves to the US and to Boston. We have worked through issues like sales in grocery stores, how to read bus timetables, hail a cab, respond to junk mail and how to handle the post office, and most important, how to tell a doctor exactly what is wrong and how to fill out immigration papers.

"As I now find myself in Poland, where my own problems are similiar to the ones they encountered," she added, "I have an even greater appreciation for what they face on a daily basis. Remembering their struggles and victories is helping me through some very confusing moments."

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