Friday, August 21, 2009

Translating Slumlord into Russian

11:50, almost time for lunch I thought as I typed a case note. The phone rang and I saw it was reception. “Do you speak Russian?”
“Uh… High school level Russian.”
“Can you please help me? There’s a client here who speaks Russian and I have no idea what he wants.”

Feeling the nervousness yet slight pride of being the only Russian speaking person in the agency I quickly got over myself and rushed around the offices to make sure no one else spoke it. After all I always used the “high school level” answer to the question of how well I spoke Russian while the truth was I had studied it for a few years but never mastered conversing to say the least. Though I believed I perfected the ability to speak Russian using English grammar.

Finally I went to the lobby. A tall man turned around, looked at me and smiled as I greeted him with a “Hello” in Russian. It turned out this man, Alexei, was a refugee who spoke his local language but had also spoke fluent Russian. He came to my agency to look for work (we have job counseling services) and even had our agency’s generic business card with a job counselor’s name on it. Since no job counselor at my agency spoke Russian nor remembered talking to this guy it was very curious how he got the card yet it was going to remain an unsolved mystery.

During the first meetings with me and our job counselor (who took Alexei on even though he spoke no Russian) I tried to call every agency I could think of to find a case manager who could support Alexei through his transition into US life and specifically one who spoke Russian. Due to his address Alexei wasn’t eligible for a case manager through my program. The truth was that despite my background in Russian conversation was stilted and very difficult. Even with him holding a dictionary and me looking up words on my online dictionary.

Unfortunately, the end results of my agency search were that I was extremely frustrated because each agency would refer me to someone else. More annoyingly, I may as well have been looking for an Urdu speaking case manager as each international or refugee agency told me that they didn’t have a Russian speaking case manager. Finally I found a couple of semi relevant contacts that I gave to Alexei. I also knew Alexei had income to pay his rent, he was taking night English classes and was working with our job counselor. He had a wife with him who was also learning English and their daughter was going to school.

I didn’t hear from him for a few months and then he came to my agency one morning with a five day notice (meaning he was late in rent) and asked for financial assistance. He explained his “public aid” stopped so he couldn’t pay his rent. Since my Russian language abilities don’t cover intricacies of “public aid” and because he didn’t have paperwork with him I kept it simple and told Alexei that once his income would resume we would consider his request and I would make a case for him. Alexei was confident his income would be renewed since he was filling out the application and said he had talked with his landlord who told Alexei he understood and that he would wait (at this point Alexei’s English was still basic but he was able to converse better). It would be much later that I would learn that Alexei received several notices from the public aid office requesting he provide them information but not understanding them, the family threw the letters away.

A week later Alexei came back, shaking with anger and showed me a court summons. “I don’t understand! I called him twice – twice and he said he would meet with me to negotiate this matter and twice he didn’t come. I just don’t understand this. Why does he put my family through this?!”

Since we weren’t able to get Alexei a lawyer in time for court he and I went and I asked for a continuance (postpone trial) to get a lawyer. I also went to the intake appointment with the lawyer to translate the intake worker’s questions and Alexei’s answers – though Alexei seemed to understand about half the questions without translation. Alexei repeated several times to anyone who would listen that he didn’t understand his landlord’s actions. “What is it about? Is it about money? I was going to pay him, I told him I was with an agency that would pay him. Why go through all of this?” He also said other refugees live in the building so the landlord should’ve been familiar with his situation. “What about my daughter,” he looked at me at one point. “She sees all of this, that we have to move, she thinks dad can’t provide. And moving to a new place will be hard for her. Hard for my wife.” The lawyer who joined the intake worker sat with us after the intake was over and I did appreciate that she took the time to listen to Alexei and understood he needed to get his anger out. “We know that landlord and we see him at court all the time. He's not a good landlord," she said. About the US legal system, she said, "It’s a completely different system here,” she explained and even went into detail about how law is different here. “Even if I explained [the system] in Russian it wouldn’t make sense to Alexei. He didn’t grow up in this system.”

The lawyer took Alexei's case and said she’ll be in court and added that Alexei himself didn’t need to come from here on out. “It’s going to be taken care of, it’s pretty much standard procedure from here,” and explained how the process would continue from this point. One essential point being that Alexei and his family would have more time to move to another apartment. I asked Alexei if he would still be interested in going to court because they would have a Russian interpreter for him (as they did when I went with him before) and he would be able to get a fuller picture of what’s going on. “Of course I’m going,” he said. Though it looked like the situation was indeed beyond translation at the end of the intake Alexei seemed less agitated. Maybe not fully accepting what’s going on but more at ease.

After leaving the legal aid office and heading to the bus stop Alexei said with a matter of fact grimace, “I’ve seen dead bodies, people in their cars die, their car and all and… Money is nothing.”

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