Trai Ton That, a former army officer in Vietnam, turned to face the audience of elderly Americans and gave a crisp salute. Hue Tam Nguyen hugged her 13-month-old American-born son. Tien Tran tearfully accepted congratulations from a line of retirees.
"This really means a lot," said Tran, 25, a student at Northern Virginia Community College. "I've been welcomed to this country, and I see how people really care for me."
Tran was among eight immigrants--six from Vietnam and one each from Eritrea and the Philippines--who were honored yesterday in an unusual ceremony at a retirement home in Falls Church whose staff is made up predominantly of foreign-born workers.
Four of the eight were sworn in as U.S. citizens by the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Two others who recently took their citizenship oaths, as well as two who are in the final stages of the naturalization process, were formally recognized by the INS and presented with U.S. flags.
For Goodwin House Inc., a nonprofit corporation that runs the retirement home and an older one in Alexandria, the occasion was a way to celebrate the increasing diversity of both its work force and the surrounding community. The oath-taking also underscored the success of Goodwin House training programs that teach its employees English and prepare them for U.S. citizenship tests.
"This is a way to give these folks a sense of our country," said D. Edward Wilson Jr., chairman of Goodwin House's board of trustees. "We're trying to help those who want to become citizens. . . . The idea is to make sure we're serving our communities--both the staff and residents--and bring them together in a way that works."
With Fairfax County struggling to meet the demand for adult English-language instruction, Goodwin House offers its own English as a Second Language classes, some of them taught by retirement-home residents who have volunteered their services. Goodwin House also offers employees classes in literacy and a high school equivalency program, and it recently began a 10-week in-house citizenship course.
In Fairfax County, more than 3,000 immigrants are taking adult English-language classes offered by the county government, and about 150 are on a waiting list.
Of approximately 300 employees at Goodwin House West, 78 percent are foreign-born. They speak 19 languages and come from dozens of countries, primarily in Asia and Africa.
"We truly value the diversity and what it can bring to our organization," said Suzie Scott, who oversees employee relations at Goodwin House West. The polyglot makeup of the staff reflects both the dramatic demographic changes in the community and an apparently greater willingness among immigrants to work with the elderly, she said.
"We've found that unfortunately our country doesn't value the elderly like a lot of other countries do," Scott said. Among many Asians and Africans, she said, "it's very normal to have parents and grandparents living in the same house with them."
The relationship between residents and staffers wasn't always so smooth. A 1997 report by the U.S. Labor Department, which praised Goodwin House's training programs, noted that the ESL classes were established originally as "a business decision" to address residents' complaints about "staff members who could not speak or understand English."
Behind yesterday's joyous celebration of citizenship lay wrenching stories of hardship and suffering in the refugees' homelands.
Trai Ton That, 57, a former South Vietnamese lieutenant colonel who now works in Goodwin House West's housekeeping department, said he spent 10 years in a reeducation camp after communist forces captured Saigon in 1975. Then he was barred from returning to the city and had to live apart from his family until he was able to emigrate with his wife and six children in 1992.
Now he wants to return to his homeland--with the protection of a U.S. passport--to visit his elderly mother.
"I want to see her before she dies," That said, breaking down in tears.