For these immigrants, a warm welcome made a huge impact

When Karen Cervera came to Philadelphia in 2018, she had big dreams. But the Mexico City native struggled to adjust to life in the U.S. Her language skills were fine for the classrooms back in her home country, but they failed to keep up during casual chitchat and especially during more high-pressure situations such as job interviews. She needed help. A friend mentioned The Welcoming Center and invited Cervera to a networking event.

“My main reason for joining The Welcoming Center’s programs was to get back on my feet and find myself again,” says Cervera. “I had lost my motivation and wasn’t sure about my goals and what path I wanted to take, especially when it came to my professional career and development.”

She could not have landed in a better place. Over the last 20 years, The Welcoming Center has helped immigrants thrive economically, providing training in language skills and cultural fluency, along with job placement and networking opportunities.

Over the last three years, Cervera has participated in The Welcoming Center’s Immigrant Leadership Institute (ILI), the Intercultural Wellness Program and the Participant Advisory Council. She has also co-founded Let’s Talk Philly, an organization dedicated to fostering the conversational language skills she lacked when she arrived in the United States. Her cofounder Yushan Chou was part of her ILI cohort. The group hosts bi-weekly conversation circles attended by immigrants and refugees hoping to develop their language skills, build community and share their experiences.

“I had studied English since I was a kid in Mexico where it is taught as a second language at every level of education,” explains Cervera. “But coming to the U.S. taught me that knowing the grammar, vocabulary, etc, is not enough to be able to communicate with people…. After a few bad experiences I didn’t feel confident enough to interact with others.”

“We knew that there were already many free English classes offered in the city, but not really a space where we could practice what we were learning,” she continues. “After doing listening campaigns where we asked other immigrants what the biggest challenges when speaking in English were for them, the main thoughts you would hear is lack of confidence, or feelings of stress and anxiety when thinking about interacting with other people in English, fear of making mistakes and being embarrassed. This made us realize the need for a safe space where we could come and practice our speaking without these concerns.”

Deisy Lorena Rios also struggles with translating her school-taught English into the real world. She arrived in Philadelphia from Columbia in 2018, moving in with her twin sister. After getting married and receiving her green card in 2021, she needed support to navigate the job market. Rios had worked for more than eight years as a sales coordinator in her home country but felt overwhelmed by writing a resume and applying for positions in her second language. A friend told her about The Welcoming Center.

“I started learning about everything,” she recalls. “They teach us about Linkedin, resumes, networking events. Actually at one of the networking events, my current boss saw me in one of the presentations. He asked them for my contact, told me about the position opening in the company and helped me to get an interview here.”

Rios now works as a client service representative in train technologies. She speaks with deep affection for the staff at The Welcoming Center, especially Employment Specialist Daniel Atik.

“I was just talking about him yesterday,” she says. “I went to the office and they have a picture of each [of us]. Like, okay, I have the picture of Deisy, she’s looking for sales. He just has that goal for each one [of us]. I know that it’s his work, but he’s taking the time to try to help each person. He’s just working so hard.”

“He told me about his history in this country,” she adds. “He just told me, ‘If I can do it, anyone can do it.’”

That connection between people — especially fellow newcomers — is key to The Welcoming Center’s impact. After all, it was founded by an immigrant, 2023 SOLAS Award honoree Anne O’Callaghan.

It was those relationships that helped Rym Bouchouka start to feel at home. In 2018, the Algeria native won a spot in the Diversity Immigrant Visa Program, which bestows 50,000 visas annually to applicants from countries with low rates of immigration to the United States.

“Because of The Welcoming Center, I could meet so many people from different countries with the same issues as me like language barriers, we didn’t study here in U.S., it wasn’t easy to work, to have a career as in my home country,” she says. “Also they help us to think like people here — asking the right questions, having the right answers. And they lead us to many events, like the job fairs and companies here in U.S. looking for employees. It had a great impact.”

She actually heard about the organization fresh off the plane at the U.S. Embassy — new arrivals were given a book filled with resources and information.

“The Welcoming Center was one of the organizations in the book,” she recalls. “When I first came here, I just went directly [there] to ask them, ‘How can I become a good immigrant here?’”

When Bouchouka first arrived in Philadelphia, she was pregnant, which put a hold on pursuing her career. In Algeria, she had worked as a process engineer and high school science teacher. Once her daughter was born, she took a position at a daycare in order to stay close to her, then she spent six months employed by Amazon before using her connections at The Welcoming Center to earn an internship as a process engineer at a chemical manufacturing company.

Bouchouka signed up for English conversation classes and then in 2022 registered for the International Professionals Program (IPP), which helps foreign-educated immigrants land a job in their field here in Philadelphia.

For all three of these women, the challenges of building a life and a career in a new country — be it language barriers, cultural barriers, information barriers — were not insurmountable. They just needed some help. The work of The Welcoming Center not only helped Cervera navigate those challenges, it also inspired her.

“Every single person inside The Welcoming Center has offered a helping hand and good advice to our team [at Let’s Talk Philly],” she says. “One of the best things about The Welcoming Center is the people who are working there; they are great, kind, intelligent people who offer sincere support to everyone who needs it.”

“I don’t know where this will take me next or what kind of job I’ll be doing in ten or twenty years; but what I know is that part of my heart will always want to support and encourage people and communities to overcome challenges,” she adds. “I know that no matter where I am, I will continue this mission throughout my life.”

Celebrate 20 years of The Welcoming Center and the 2023 Solas honorees on Monday, April 24th at World Cafe Live. Grab your tickets today!

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