Balancing a large tray on her shoulders, Nahide Kafri dashed from table to table serving dinner to patients with Alzheimer's disease at the Los Angeles Jewish Home for the Aging (JHA). Despite the hard work, a smile crossed her face.
As a certified nurse assistant (CNA), Kafri earns less than $9 an hour, barely enough to support her husband and four children. She commutes two hours a day in heavy traffic to get to and from work.
She said she couldn't be happier.
"I like working here so much, maybe too much," said Kafri, clad in white shoes, a floral gown and white pants. "I've always liked to help people, and now I can help old people, people who really, really need me."
Just six months ago, the 46-year-old Iranian immigrant was unemployed and on welfare. Now, she has a bright future.
In the past year and a half, Kafri and 29 other immigrants and refugees, mostly from the former Soviet Union and Iran, have moved off the dole and into stable jobs after completing a five-month program sponsored by Jewish Vocational Service (JVS) . After earning their state certification, they have gone on to work as CNAs at JHA, where they bathe, dress and feed the elderly, among other tasks.
In the process of becoming nurse assistants, immigrants like Kafri have regained their pride, said Tatyana Kodner, director of the department of refugee and immigrant services at JVS.
"This program creates miracles in their self-perception, ego and consciousness and makes them feel equal to anybody and everybody who's functioning independently and not waiting for handouts," she said.
And they make wonderful CNAs, said Molly Forrest, chief executive of JHA, adding, "They're really good workers."
So talented, in fact, that area nursing homes have inquired about hiring them. Country Villa Health Services, a Marina del Rey firm that operates 26 skilled-nursing homes in Southern California, has had discussions with JVS about possibly tapping program graduates for future positions, said Martha Schwegler, County Villa's director of education and training.
The state's nursing shortage has meant a strong job market for participants in the Certified Nurse Assistant Training Program at JVS. With California's residents graying and its population growing, nursing homes, hospitals and other medical facilities are hungry for CNAs, licensed vocational nurses (LVNs) and registered nurses (RNs), said Donna Gerber of the California Nurses Association, a Sacramento trade group. New state guidelines mandating minimum staffing requirements are expected to boost demand even more when they take effect next year, she added.
For Kafri, completing the JVS program has been nothing less than life altering.
Coming to the United States in 1998 to escape anti-Semitism, Kafri, her husband and their children found themselves crammed into a one-room Los Angeles apartment with no language skills and even less confidence. Isolated and depressed, Kafri and her spouse fought bitterly, feeling like outcasts in their adopted country. She cried herself to sleep many a night.
In Iran, the Kafris lived a comfortable, middle-class life. They owned their own home in Tehran. Kafri's husband, Khosrov, ran a successful company that manufactured baby shoes. Although some prospective buyers steered clear because of his Jewish heritage, he earned enough so his wife could stay home to raise their family.
In the United States, however, the couple relied on government assistance to survive, a source of great shame. They nearly lost hope, sometimes wishing they had never uprooted themselves.
Then a social worker told Nahide Kafri about the JVS program, and she saw a way out of her predicament. At first, her husband discouraged her from pursuing a career in nursing because of his opposition to her working outside the home. After several heated discussions, he finally relented.
She began her journey toward self-sufficiency when JVS officials interviewed her to ascertain whether she had the English-language skills, intellect and physical strength to pursue a nursing career. The agency also performed an extensive background check on her, as well as on other interested immigrants and refugees. After the vetting, she and a handful of other qualified applicants were chosen to start formal training at JHA.
At the Jewish Home, Kafri and fellow trainees received more than 160 hours of classroom and hands-on training. Cyril Kincaid, the main educator, taught them more than just how to feed stroke victims properly and perform rehabilitative exercises to prevent bed sores and keep the blood flowing. Trying to breach cultural barriers, he talked about such subjects as death and dying in America, noting that some people are agnostics and atheists and prefer nonreligious burials. He stressed the need to respect patients' customs and wishes, no matter how seemingly exotic.
During the training, Kafri earned $7.15 an hour, and JVS assigned her a mentor to give her career and life advice. Her salary increased to $8.75 after she passed state exams and gained her certification. After three months on the job, JHA hiked her pay to $8.88, plus health benefits.
Kafri isn't getting rich at the new job. However, she manages to save enough to surprise her children, including her 21-year-old son, Rayan, a UCLA senior.
"I hand them some money and say, 'Here, spend it for yourself,'" she said, smiling with pride.
JVS started its program after executives noticed that many job-seeking immigrants and refugees on welfare had previously worked as medical technicians and nurses in their home countries. That, coupled with the state's acute nursing shortage, made agency executives confident that they had a winning idea.
Los Angeles County agreed, granting $197,000 and, recently, another $150,000 for the program. Several private foundations have followed suit.
Although little new money is expected from the county because of the budget crunch, JVS Chief Executive Vivian B. Seigel said the program will continue without interruption, because additional private-sector grants should offset the loss of county funds. The Jewish Venture Philanthropy Fund recently said it had preliminarily agreed to invest $125,000 in the program.
JVS executives said they hope to partner with local community colleges so that program graduates could easily go on to train to become LVNs and RNs.
Like the freshly minted nurse assistants, JHA has benefited from the program. Not only has it hired more than two dozen program graduates, but it also receives $1,350 for each CNA it trains in conjunction with JVS, said Shelly Ryan, the home's chief of human resources.
More than that, the program has given a real opportunity to people down on their luck, she said.
"We have so many people from so many countries who come here for no other reason than to make a better life for their families," Ryan said. "Now, they are."