New life in Baltimore is a hard climb for older Russians

June 29, 1992|By James Bock | James Bock,Staff Writer

Like a schoolgirl, Izabella Konovalova sat hunched over an English primer and asked Markus Kalantyrskiy a Russian-accented question: "Is Tommy going to play baseball Saturday?"

"No, he isn't," Mr. Kalantyrskiy responded with the authority of one who carefully wrote out his lessons the night before. "He played baseball last Saturday. He doesn't like to play baseball every Saturday."

Izabella Konovalova, 53, and Markus Kalantyrskiy, 55, aren't schoolchildren, don't know Tommy and have only the slightest acquaintance with America's national pastime.

They are Jewish refugees, recently arrived in Baltimore from the former Soviet Union, and, like a growing number of others, they have come to America at an awkward age. Somewhat like adolescents, they are suspended between life stages: one foot in their prime, the other in old age.

While many of their contemporaries are at the peaks of their careers or coasting into retirement,these refugees in their 50s and 60s have left behind the friends and familiar haunts of a lifetime. They have come here to wrestle with a vexatious new language and to seek menial jobs often done better by workers decades younger.

More than 3,000 Jewish refugees have come to Baltimore over the past five years, 1,151 in the last 12 months alone. As younger Jewish refugees settle here, they bring over parents and other older relatives. Gradually, the number of immigrants in their 50s or older has increased.

"What ends up happening is you have people who are older, have less facility in learning the language, less ability to get a job and have medical problems just by the nature of aging. The whole immigrant experience gets exacerbated by age," said Gail Kramer, director of resettlement for Jewish Family Services.

"It's a nationwide trend," said Jerry Levinrad of the Council of Jewish Federations in New York.

In 1979, during the first wave of Soviet Jewish emigration, one-sixth of those who came to the United States were 61 or older, Mr. Levinrad said. Now nearly one-quarter are. The influx of refugees is expected to continue at present levels at least dTC through 1994, he said.

The aging immigrants come to build a better future for their children, sacrificing personal achievements for the promise that America holds. They leave Russia or Ukraine with $50 cash each and what they can carry in two suitcases, no more than 70 pounds in all.

After arriving in America, the older refugees say, parent-child roles often reverse. The children, who usually learn English and find work more quickly, begin to take charge.

"In Belarus, I was the head of the family and the children would come to me for advice. Before they did something, we would talk it over," said Ms. Konovalova, a radio engineer who came to America four months ago. (She and other refugees spoke through an interpreter.) "Here, since I don't know the language and the children know it and are adults, I feel they don't need my advice and opinion anymore."

In the English class at Beth Jacob Congregation, Alex Shmukler, 14, stood out from his elders, urbane and highly educated as most of them are. Alex zipped through the lessons. After only five months in Baltimore, he converses easily in English.

Meanwhile, 61-year-old Yakov Gendin, a grandfatherly psychiatrist from Moscow who has been in Baltimore nearly as long, struggled.

"I pour the flowers," Dr. Gendin told Sara Rose, the New Community College of Baltimore teacher dispatched to the satellite classroom on Park Heights Avenue.

"Ah, you water the flowers," Ms. Rose responded.

"Not pour?" Dr. Gendin asked before plowing diligently ahead. "I water flowers every day. Yesterday I watered flowers. Tomorrow I'm going to water the flowers."

"Oh, my English . . ." Dr. Gendin said later with a sigh. "At my age it is very difficult to find a job, especially when you don't know the language. That is why people in this age group probably are upset. We have a lot of life and job experiences, and we can't use them."

Age, language and a sluggish economy are a triple whammy for aging immigrants, said Barbara Barshack, director of immigrant services at Jewish Vocational Services.

"Take the same problems that an American that age faces looking for a new job. Multiply that by 1,000 other problems, and that's where they're coming from," she said.

Jewish refugees of all ages now average 4.7 months getting a job, Ms. Barshack said. That's up from an average of 3.5 months two years ago, partly due to the recession and partly due to the growing number of older job-seekers, she said.

"We can take a younger bookkeeper and, if their English is not good enough, they still can get entry-level work delivering pizzas, baby-sitting for a working mother or being a chambermaid in a hotel. But an older person often can't take these jobs because they are hard to do physically," Ms. Barshack said.

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