By Abby Wihl
“Russia way better for me,” said Sayed Qanit, “Here is very hard life.”
Qanit, 38, works at Russian Gourmet, a chain of five Russian groceries in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area. The chain serves an almost exclusively Slavic clientele.
“It is just a small Moscow. Everything you want to buy is here,” Qanit said.
Qanit said he lived in Russia for almost 20 years, but is from Afghanistan and still has Afghan citizenship.
In Russia he worked at a business that bought products from China and sold them within Russia, he said. Before he imported goods from China, he studied in Russia because the Soviet Union had an agreement with some of its satellites to provide education.
Qanit said he moved to here almost two years ago from Russia to be with his wife and 4-year-old son.
His wife moved to the United States in 2000 and has U.S. citizenship, and his son was born on American soil. Qanit has a green card, and would like to obtain U.S. citizenship too.
He has worked at Russian Gourmet for almost all of the two years he has been in America.
When he first moved to the United States, he was taking an English as a second language, or ESL, course at a church in Springfield on Sundays. His ESL teacher found a listing for an open position at the grocery chain on the Internet and wrote Qanit a recommendation.
When Qanit interviewed for the position, Qanit said the managers were surprised by his Russian fluency, and hired him.
He spends three days a week at the Alexandria, Va. location, and two days at the store in Herndon, Va.
At the store in Alexandria, Qanit said he runs the cash register, stocks merchandise, cleans the building and assists customers.
Nina Borisyuk, the manager, said, translated from Russian, “He is a nice man.”
Borisyuk is in charge of Alexandria location and has worked there for three years. She is from Brest, Belarus, and when asked her age she said in Russian, “I am old enough to have sons and daughters, grandsons and granddaughters.”
Qanit said he prepares fresh food items for the deli counter and for catered events at the Herndon location. He said he makes all kinds of Russian items from pirozhki (flaky pastries stuffed with meat, potato, cabbage, or cream cheese and raisins) to traditional Russian salads and soups.
“He is a marvelous worker,” said Ira Savekova, translated from Russian.
Savekova, 50, has worked at the Herndon store for about five years and is originally from Moscow.
Qanit said he is still taking an ESL course two nights a week, but the four hours a week are not enough to master his third language, after Pashto and Russian.
Qanit said he is not able to speak enough English to make progress, and he hardly hears native English speakers.
“At work: Russian. At home: watch Afghan TV,” said Qanit. “English conversation: Challenge.”
Kenneth Dreesen, coordinator of English programs at the International Center for Language Studies, which does intensive language immersion programs for the International Monetary Fund and the U.S. State Department, said adult learners have a particularly tough time adapting to the language.
“It is a struggle,” Dreesen said, “They do not use it, therefore they do not retain it, and they get fossilized language errors, which makes learning even more difficult.”
Dreesen said it is possible for an individual, like Qanit, to need 600 to 700 hours of personalized instruction before becoming truly conversant.
Qanit recently bought a computer to run ESL computer programs, but has not found someone to show him how to use the machine.
“All I need is one time show, maybe two time, but then I will be able to do,” he said. “I want to find job where I can speak English.”
He said it would be even better if he could find a night job, where he would be able to speak English, and go to college during the day.
Until then, Qanit savors the few times a day non-Slavic speakers trickle into Russian Gourmet. He listens to their conversations, and sometimes tries to sneak in a few words.