Aminata moved to the United States in July 2017 to join her husband who had moved to New York a few months before her. As a native French speaker who moved to Montreal, Canada for her university education from her home country of Guinea, Aminata spoke little English when she arrived in the United States. But she did not want to let the language barrier stop her from fully participating in everything her new home had to offer. “When I came to the U.S., I could barely speak English. To improve my English, I took ESL classes and I volunteered in various places, including at my daughter’s school, for the Free Library of Philadelphia in my neighborhood, and at HIAS, where right now, I’m a contracted Mandingo and Susu interpreter.”
Aminata first heard about The Welcoming Center from her husband, who had heard about The Welcoming Center from a friend in New York, where he was living at that time. “My husband moved to the U.S. before me. When he met with his friend, she told him that The Welcoming Center has very good programs for newcomers and that they had helped her. He told me that when I moved to the U.S., he would take me to The Welcoming Center.” And so he did. “If you’re a French speaker, you can live all your life in Montreal without speaking English, and if you’re an English speaker, you can live there all your life without speaking French because we have two official languages – English and French,” Aminata says. But as classes were full at that time, The Welcoming Center referred Aminata to the Center for Literacy (CFL).
As Aminata gained confidence in speaking English, her teacher at CFL encouraged her to apply for programs at The Welcoming Center. She approached The Welcoming Center and Manuel Portillo, Director of Community Engagement at The Welcoming Center, told Aminata she might be a great fit for the Immigrant Leadership Institute (ILI) and invited her to attend an information session where she could learn more about the program. “I registered for the ILI information session to find out more. I told Manuel, as the information session was in the evening, it was a little bit late for me. I don’t have a car and I am afraid to go there alone in the evening. Manuel said, ‘Just come for the first day. Maybe you will find a friend who lives around your neighborhood and you can do carpooling.” And Aminata did find a fellow participant to carpool with. “I met a guy from Liberia who lives not too far from me. And he has a car. He said to me, “Yes, sister. I will take you home. So Manuel was right.”
Aminata talks about her time at ILI fondly. “When immigrants come to the U.S., sometimes we think we need a job. But sometimes, we need more than a job. We need to be in the community. Even though many immigrants don’t speak English when they come here, that doesn’t take away our skills from us. We are part of this city.” Aminata and her team at the ILI took on an action project to understand culture differences as a barrier in the workplace. “I met with people, and we had to interview some immigrants and some HR managers, directors, and employees. It was very helpful for me. Even though I am not working fulltime right now, I’m very proud of what I did.”
Aminata graduated from ILI in July 2020. Upon graduation, Aminata joined and successfully completed The Welcoming Center’s International Professionals Program in April 2021. She is now looking for full-time opportunities. While she worked in customer service in a bank before she moved to the U.S., Aminata has very different goals for her future as she has been inspired by her time at ILI. “I like to talk to people. And I’m happy when I know I have made someone smile. I like to solve problems. I want to help people in need, like me. When you come to the U.S. as an immigrant, you go through a lot. So now that I have taken all those steps, I know better how I can help others. So now, I want to work in community engagement.”