JFCS program helps immigrants acclimate to Pittsburgh
Tikkun olamJewish Family and Community Services/Literacy Pittsburgh

JFCS program helps immigrants acclimate to Pittsburgh

IWP, a partnership between JFCS Career Services and Literacy Pittsburgh, has helped a growing number of immigrants strengthen their English skills and prepare for the workforce.

Concluding IWP meeting (Screenshot courtesy of JFCS)
Concluding IWP meeting (Screenshot courtesy of JFCS)

Zuhal Gammar Adam Tebein was looking for a way to help.

The Sudanese citizen served as a nutrition worker in her native West Darfur for the better part of 15 years before the complications of tribal conflicts led her to immigrate to the United States.

She arrived at an airport in Philadelphia with her husband and children on Oct. 28, 2022.

After relocating to Pittsburgh, Zuhal met workers from Jewish Family and Community Services. They gave Tebein clothing and furniture and helped enroll her four children in school. Though JFCS’ Immigrant Workforce Program (IWP), they also helped improve her English skills and sharpen her resume.

Thanks to the program, Tebein started work as a nurse assistant at UPMC Mercy hospital on Jan. 16.

“My thanks and appreciation goes to the JFCS organization for their support — to me in particular and immigrants, in general,” she said.

IWP, a partnership between JFCS Career Services and the nonprofit group Literacy Pittsburgh, started in 2017 and has helped a growing number of immigrants to strengthen their English-language skills and prepare for the U.S. workforce.

“I like to say we’re serving the gaps between K-12, higher education and work,” said Carey Harris, Literacy Pittsburgh’s CEO. “Most of the reason (many immigrants) are coming to the U.S. is they want jobs, they want careers.”

Throughout the eight-week program, JFCS staff help participants format their resumes, write cover letters, prepare for interviews and work on their “elevator pitches.” In the end, this work helps many new to the U.S. understand the expectations of area workplaces.

Literacy Pittsburgh provides English language support for participants, helping students master workplace vocabulary.

After switching to a virtual format in 2020 to meet the participants’ needs during the pandemic, the program continues to be held over Zoom. Becky Johnson, director of JFCS Career Services, said this lowers the barriers for attendance for many individuals, especially those with children or existing jobs.

The group also uses Zoom’s breakout-room feature to give participants more focused attention to their resumes, cover letters and more.

Johnson said organizers aim to schedule about three or four cohorts each year. Each cohort runs for about eight weeks and includes about 15 people.

The current cohort features 16 participants representing 12 different countries. The jobs workers in these cohorts seek also vary widely.

Johnson said some immigrants to Pittsburgh had worked previously as doctors, IT professionals or engineers. Though language can sometimes be a barrier, IWP participants need to have a basic understanding of English, as no interpretation services are offered.

“They want to learn the process of navigating a job search in the U.S.A.,” said Bishnu Timsina, a JFCS career counselor. “And, as they go through the program, they learn.”

Pittsburgh has experienced waves in refugee populations in recent years, Johnson said — South Americans and Afghans, Congolese and Ukrainians. But the cohorts don’t always line up necessarily with the immigrant wave at certain times.

Johnson said she, in turn, has learned a lot through working with new generations of American immigrants.

“I think there are so many myths and so many assumptions,” she said. “I think (people close to the IWP program) learn that these are people who are here to work.”

Leila, who prefers to not use her full name in print, said that IWP was one of the first programs she signed up for when she arrived from Tunisia.

The job search process initially was frustrating for her.

“I was lost,” she said. “I didn’t have any clues or idea how it works here.”

IWP, she said, helped her figure out how to navigate the local workforce.

“I learned the adequate techniques and skills that helped me to make my job search journey easier, smoother, and less stressful,” she said.

“It was the best decision I’ve ever made since I came to America.” PJC

Justin Vellucci is a freelance writer.

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