Imagine saying goodbye to family and friends, a career you have built for years, and your home that you love. It is no easy feat. But so many immigrants do so every single day, just so that they can make a better life for themselves and their families. Flor took a very similar journey to come to the United States.
In October 2020, Flor left her hometown of Guerrero, Mexico and arrived in Philadelphia at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic and as the weather started turning cold. She laughs as she recalls how the winter makes one feel even more isolated, saying, “In my hometown, the temperature is about 100 degrees.” Her husband had just moved to Philadelphia a couple of months before her. She spoke little English and recalls how isolating her experience was. She recalls, “When I got here, I didn’t speak English. So, I studied every day, hour by hour. I joined free English classes at the Free Library of Philadelphia, and University of Pennsylvania, and more. I felt frustrated that I didn’t understand anything, I couldn’t buy anything in a store. It was difficult.” She also talks about how she missed her family and friends and how being in lockdown affected her ability to grow her network in Philadelphia. “In addition to leaving my family, I left my best friends, so in the last year, my husband and I were always alone. I felt isolated and I missed them so much.”
But Flor never gave up trying to find ways she could grow her network in Philadelphia. “I contacted the Consulate of Mexico in Philadelphia and said, ‘Please, I need to find community activities’. The embassy sent me options of different groups I could join and the most interesting group to me was The Welcoming Center.”
Flor contacted The Welcoming Center and spoke with Manuel Portillo, Director of Community Engagement. Manuel told Flor she might be a great fit for the Intercultural Wellness Program (IWP), which was going to start in a few months. “I contacted Manuel and he told me about The Welcoming Center. He told me that I could attend IWP information session to learn about the program, but he explained to me that English is necessary for participating in it. So, in the next months I studied English because I wanted to make sure I could be part of the class.”
Even though it would be a few months before Flor would join IWP as a program participant, Manuel continued to check in with Flor to make sure she was doing well and invited her to participate in events organized by The Welcoming Center as well graduate groups of The Welcoming Center’s Immigrant Leadership Institute, such as I Belong. “Manuel always supported me,” says Flor. “He contacted me and invited me to participate in English Conversation Circles and programs organized by I Belong.”
Flor joined IWP in March 2021 and shares about the project she developed together with her team to address English language as a barrier to wellbeing and one of the main reasons for the social isolation faced by immigrants Through the IWP, Flor found her voice and has made friends and how, she is helping others do the same. “I am developed a project with my team about the English language barrier, which is actually my barrier. I want to help other people, other immigrants, because I know that it’s difficult when you arrive in another country alone, and don’t know English. So for me, I like participating in this project. I hope to help other people feel more confident. The idea is that if you learn some words, you can have a simple conversation and feel good emotionally.”
Besides helping other immigrants overcome the English language barrier, Flor is also taking her first steps to getting back to pursuing her professional goals. Before arriving in Philadelphia, she worked approximately for seven years in the pharmaceutical industry in Mexico. Her last role was as a quality assurance coordinator. “I have a temporary job in a research laboratory at the University of Pennsylvania so I’m very happy for that.” Flor hopes she will one day be able to get back into full-time work but shares how grateful she is to have a temporary job to be able to learn about the U.S. workplace. “It is necessary to learn the rules, new norms, because the U.S. is different. But I would like to find a job in the pharmaceutical industry or in the area of Quality Assurance.”
“The Welcoming Center for me is the best opportunity to feel more integrated in our community. It is a good opportunity to meet people and learn English, about wellness, acquire new skills and there are many activities where I can participate and help more immigrants like me. For me, this is the best opportunity in my life at this moment in this country, and Manuel is a very important person for me in this country because he believes in me.”