Featured Action Project

Writing Our Story in the United States: Exhibition

As part of the Immigrant Leadership Institute, groups organize action projects to address barriers immigrants face in Philadelphia. One of the groups organized an action project entitled, Writing Our Story in the United States: Exhibition, which was held at Mixto on August 20, 2018.

This group decided to do qualitative research on the most common barriers faced by immigrants in Philadelphia. They targeted different age groups, professional profiles, languages, cultures and lengths of stay in the States. The goal was to gather experiences about their strategies to overcome barriers, learn about their support system, and provide recommendations to other immigrants. The exhibition showcased their stories and the valuable lessons they learned.

The team:

Fatemeh Norouzi
Fatemeh has a master’s degree in Persian literature and currently works as an ESL and Adult Basic Education instructor.

Katherine Cielis-Prieto
Katherine has a psychology degree and works as a bilingual clinical evaluator for a non-profit, which is a subcontractor for Philadelphia courts.

Karla Martin
Karla has a sociology degree and works as a case manager for a public health non-profit.

Monica Molina
Monica has a degree in systems engineering and software engineering. She is a data integration analyst at a non-profit.

The exhibition:

Maria Eugenia Gonzalez
Computer engineer, Spanish teacher and an Author for Children’s Books from Venezuela. Her journey in United States started when she had the opportunity to work in San Juan Puerto Rico through her company at the time.

Those years challenged her because she had to move to a new country without her family. In 2005, she received an amazing opportunity to work with Oracle Caribbean in Puerto Rico, where she worked for 10 years. Her dream became a reality. While she was with Oracle, Maria went from being a Senior Consultant, to later become a Principal Consultant, and then reached the top as an IT Project Manager.

While in Puerto Rico she met her husband Arturo. When the economic situation forced Arturo to relocate to Pennsylvania, they tried long distance, but after a year of only being able to see her husband a couple times, Maria left everything behind and moved to PA in 2016 with her suitcase full of dreams and her few English words. When she arrived she felt lost. She did not have a Job, friends or money and she did not speak English. She realized that her 15 years of experience meant nothing in this country.

She began participating in volunteer work. From there she built connections and relationships that eventually led her to the Welcoming Center. Maria was able to improve her language with the Welcoming Center English program. Also, the tools that the Welcoming Center gave her helped her to find her current job at the American Reading Company in King of Prussia, where she has been working for one year and a half. She actually works as a Business Report developer and received the opportunity to write three children’s books so far.


Arturo Santos
Arthur is also a computer engineer. He likes to try new challenges and live new adventures, so he decided to find a job outside Mexico. In 2008, he worked in Connecticut for 2 years and in 2010 worked in California for 6 months. In 2011 he moved to Puerto Rico where he met and fell in love with Maria, who eventually became his wife. The bad economic situation in Puerto Rico made
him lose his job and found what he thought was a temporary job in Pennsylvania in 2014. Arturo felt a uncertainty for the future knowing that in his line of work he will have to find a new job in a couple of years and maybe move to a new city once again, but this time it will be two move to new adventures.

In 2016, both became new Pennsylvania immigrants. Putting their fears aside, they became adamant to make Pennsylvania their new home. Together with all the love they have for each other, they overcame all the obstacles and every day keep building step by step a fantastic adventure of being immigrants and helping others when they can.

Dmitriy Zherdev

I’m 26 years old and I’ve been living in the United States since 2008, but I was born and raised in Russia. My mother, a professional ballet dancer was determined to immigrate to the United States seeking a better life. At the age of 17 I discovered a whole new country for myself. Right away I noticed a lot of differences in people’s appearance, accents and manners. I spoke very little English and that was my biggest obstacle upon moving to the US.

At home, my mother, and stepfather, were supportive and significantly contributed to my adjustment in the US. My stepfather and I spent a lot of time together and he’s one of the people I gained confidence from while I was still trying to overcome culture shock. Even though, we spoke English, we had to use gestures very often as my vocabulary was low. Even at home I was fully immersed in the culture. But, the two years that I spent in high school were the most difficult.

The teachers and students spoke so fast that I had a hard time understanding them. A few students tried to make me comfortable by recollecting Russian words they knew. My grades were good in most classes but I was struggling in my English class. Every day I was determined to listen and learn, hoping to soon speak the language.

It wasn’t until the next school year that I found a good support system. I joined the soccer team, which became my second family. I had my teammates in different classes who helped me with classwork, culture, language, and with my transition overall. Closer to my high school graduation, after two years of being in the country, I finally adopted and started feeling comfortable living a new life. I currently
work for a company that conducts pre-employment criminal background check.

Ahmed Didouche

I am from Algeria, located in North Africa. Before I came to America in 2011, I had never thought that one day I would leave my country and settle in a country completely different from my own culture and language. It took me a while to decide if I should immigrate or stay in my home country to continue my studies. After 5 years studying at Mouloud Mammeri University (Algeria), in 2010, I graduated as an engineer in Material Science. In 2011, I had my Visa and moved to reside here. Currently I am a green card holder and I have the right to work and go to school. When I first got here, I faced many barriers, such as language, lack of experience, transferring my credits, and the lack of information.

The little English I had learned in Algeria was not enough to fully understand American English. Then, the first thing I had to do was learn English. I took English classes online, and registered to take classes at some organization in Philadelphia, such as The Welcoming Center and Nationalities Services Center. Meanwhile, I was looking for a job, and it was not easy to find it because my language was horrible. In 2013, I took English lessons at Community College of Philadelphia (CCP) in order to take classes in my major. I started my major in Computer Information System in 2015. Today, I am a part time student and manage my time between classes and work.

I remember my first job was in a meat factory working non stop for long hours. It was very cold inside and with miserable pay. Later, I started working at Dunkin Donuts as a baker for long nights with only 7.25 dollars an hour; it was quite better compared to the previous job. In 2014, I went to the Welcoming Center and asked them to help me to find a job. They helped me to build my resume with all the certificates I earned in my country, and a month later I got a call from them telling me about a job opportunity. I was very excited for the chance to work as a machine operator because it was something related with the field I studied in my country (I know materials, machines, and the processing). In 2016, they transferred me to work as a warehouse office clerk. My life in Philadelphia is not only between work and study. Now, I feel part of the city and I want to do something better for the city and immigrants. I joined the Advisory Council at The Welcoming Center, and I was a participant of the Immigrants Leadership Institute, which was a great opportunity to help immigrants to thrive in America.

Everything is possible in life even though we do not always think so. We do not plan it, and we do not believe it. Life is full of surprises, and no one knows where we will be tomorrow.

María del Pilar Hernández Con
Costa Rica

I moved to the U.S over 5 years ago, after I married an American. When I moved to the U.S, I left behind everything that was, and still is, important for me: my family, my friends, my profession, my financial independence and in many ways, my identity.

I am a Family Medicine physician. I practiced in my country of origin for five years. When I first moved here, I had high expectations regarding my career: why not? This is the land of opportunities after all! However, things turned to be harder than I imagined. I had to take a test to get licensed in the USA, but it was not enough. By the time I came, I had been out from medical school for longer than 5 years, which would be an obstacle to be accepted in some of the residency (process of getting a medical specialty) programs. Moreover, I had to look for letters of recommendation granted by native  physicians, a task that requires networking and time, adding difficulty to the process. While I was volunteering in the department of Family Medicine of the University of Pennsylvania, I was  ecommended to seek advice from the Welcoming Center regarding my situation. Interesting enough, around the same time, my husband read an article in the newspaper explaining the mission of the organization.

Encouraged by both, the chair of the department of Family Medicine and my husband, I sought  advice from the Welcoming Center. For many years, when I first came to this country, I tried to do everything by myself, precisely by the nature of my personality. Thanks to the Welcoming Center I understood that doing things by my own was a harder and a longer path to obtain anything one desires in life. This organization helped me to shape my resume in a way that fit the American standard and trained me for interviews for my residency application. Although I was not “successful” in obtaining a spot in a residency program, the Welcoming Center helped me to learn how to be more flexible when looking into my future and made me understand how I could evolve as a human being and develop skills that I never thought I could have. I also learned that I could take a new path in terms of my professional career. I have always been shy, but I learned the importance of networking, and I pushed myself in that direction. I continuously sought for opportunities in the research field by volunteering. I finally got a volunteer position in the Neurology department of the Pennsylvania Hospital, University of Pennsylvania. The physician I worked with was very happy with my performance and soon after my start, hired me part-time, then, one year later I got a full-time position in a research laboratory. I have been working in the laboratory since then and I realized that clinical  research in the world is mostly conducted in Caucasian populations. Therefore, I decided to pursue a career in Epidemiology, with the purpose of including Latin American populations in different studies. I became a more opened person, I learned how to navigate in a culture that is not the one I grew up in, I am aware that now I feel part of a community (a community of immigrants) but also part of the American society, and I learned to incorporate elements of this new culture to my own, without losing my Latin American identity.

Shila Sheedfar

I am from Tehran, Iran. In Iran, I got my PhD in Art Philosophy and worked for several years before traveling to the US. I came to the US in 2017 with my daughter, Negar, who is an expert pianist, with the hope of pursuing her studies in music. After several visits to the US cities, we ended up living in Philadelphia which has many high ranked institutes for music studies.

Although I had heard that it was very hard for immigrants to find their favorite jobs here, I never got discouraged because I had a pretty strong experience working as a psychologist, family counselor, and also a manager at the children’s disability center in Tehran for many years. However, I needed to improve my English in order to find an appropriate position here. Therefore, I attended English classes at the Welcoming Center for New Pennsylvanians, and at the same time, worked on my resume and applied for many jobs relevant to my expertise.

After a few months, I was invited to interviews by several organizations. Now, I am excited to start working soon and make a better situation for my daughter to enter her favorite music college next year. I believe that immigration is a very big challenge, especially for people who have to rebuild their careers at older ages. However, we should always keep our hope, look forward, and do our best to achieve our goals.