tampabay.com

Word by word, a new life unfolds

By ANDREW SKERRITT
Published October 1, 2006


It's Tuesday evening in the Guzman household, a modest one-story ranch in Wesley Chapel.

Gina, 17, her sister, Maria, 9, and mom, Olga Rodriguez, sit around and make small talk with their visitor, Jennifer Jones.

A counselor with Gulf Coast Jewish Family Services Inc., Jones comes bearing spider rings, Hershey kisses and a poster board for games and rewards. She's here to teach English.

As darkness arrives, Jones doesn't start her lesson. She waits for Gina and Maria's dad, Pablo Guzman, who's running a little late.

The Guzmans have been in the United States for about a year. Maria attends Quail Hollow Elementary; Gina is a junior at Wesley Chapel High School. For the time being Olga Rodriguez is a homemaker - she used to be a school secretary in Colombia. Dad used to be in trucking, now he works as a mechanic. They miss friends, family, their homeland. But going back home isn't an option.

The Guzmans are refugees who fled the drug and civil war violence that has dogged their South American homeland for generations. They've found asylum, a new home in America. Now, though, the hard work begins.

For them to adjust to life in America, for Maria and Gina to do well in school, get an education, go to college, they must learn a new tongue, English.

But they're fortunate. Maria and Gina are among 200 youths in Pasco, Pinellas and Hillsborough counties who are getting help from Gulf Coast Jewish Family Services Inc. under a state Department of Children and Families' financed program to assist refugee students stay and thrive in their new schools.

Other agencies provide similar services to youth refugees in Jacksonville, Orlando, Miami-Dade and Hollywood.

Refugees come from Sudan, Haiti, Liberia, Bosnia, and Cuba - wherever war or political strife dominates. And when they come to America, they face a different kind of struggle to adjust to their new surroundings.

Each refugee family with children has different needs. Some can't speak English; some speak English but don't understand the local school system and the expectations of a new culture. Some kids have lost years of school because of war and living in refugee camps.

The Guzmans' trouble was simpler but still complicated. It wasn't easy to get Gina's school transcripts from Colombia.

Gulf Coast Jewish Family Services' Refugee, Youth and Family program provides counselors like Jones to work with individual families in the Tampa Bay region.

That's why Jones has been coming to the Guzmans' home each Tuesday night for more than a month. The next day Jones was scheduled to accompany Olga to a teacher's conference at Gina's school.

The class is for the girls, but the parents join in. Getting adjusted to life in America is a family commitment.

Amid the banter, Pablo enters and hugs Maria; the lesson begins.

Maria's English is halting. "Como se dice?" "How do you say?" she asks. But as the youngest member of the family, she's learning English much faster than her older sister and parents.

As they played a game identifying the parts of the body in English, Maria always seems to know the answer. When Jones asks a question, if Gina or Olga hesitates, Maria chimes in.

Pablo knits his brow as he struggles to find the right word - elbow, forehead, fingers and toes.

At work, he is nervous about his pronunciation. He doesn't want to say something offensive. He's worried "hey, guys" might sound like "hey, gays" to his co-workers.

It's humbling to start over at age 45, learning the parts of the body in a new language, like a young child. But learning alongside his wife and daughters makes the lesson easier.

As the session goes on for one hour, the phone rings, stops, then rings again and again. No one even looks at the phone; no one gets up to answer it.

The task at hand, learning English, seems too important to be interrupted. Not by a phone call.

Andrew Skerritt can be reached at (813) 909-4602 or toll-free at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 4602. His e-mail address is askerritt@sptimes.com