Mariam Ibrahim stands in front of the audience in a community forum. At age 24, this is the first time she speaks in public.
She is accustomed to being part of the audience but this time, along with four other members of her team, she is leading the discussion. Mariam is nervous. I can sense her quiet agitation in her voice. At her young age, she has experienced the power of others over her life, but tonight something is different.
We are at the Northeast Regional Library and there is a group of about 60 people who have come to discuss an issue that affects the community: the limited number of English classes available for immigrants and refugees who have made Northeast Philadelphia their home.
“There is a huge number of immigrants in the Northeast and a few opportunities to learn English. Do you think the few classes available now are enough, do you think so? No!” Mariam says raising her voice. “Even if we multiply that by five, it’s not enough.”
I met Mariam one quiet afternoon when she asked me for help to develop her resume. Although she obtained a bachelor’s degree in physics from her home country, Egypt, Mariam faced an uncertain future. Despite her education, her choices were very limited in a society heavily dominated by men. Simple things such as walking down the street, taking a bus to school, or going to church by herself were activities suspicious and dangerous enough for a young Christian woman in a country that has seen extreme political violence and religious turmoil in recent years.
After arriving in Philadelphia over a year and a half ago, it has been extremely difficult for her to find a job where she can use her education.
She started working at Panera and began attending English classes at the Welcoming Center for New Pennsylvanians and other non-profit organizations. She also started volunteering as an Arabic translator at the African Family Health Organization in West Philadelphia and participating as a choir singer and as a musician in her newfound church.
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After improving her English skills, she decided to enroll in the Immigrant Leadership Institute, a program offered by the Welcoming Center to promote civic participation in Philadelphia. The program is designed to help immigrants develop their listening and team building skills and use a model of inclusive decision-making to research barriers to immigrant integration, collective narrative and action.
The program aims at reshaping the narrative on the role of immigrants through a developmental approach to civic engagement at a time when hateful discourse against immigrants nationally has resulted in an increase in hate crimes and policy practices that attempt to reverse social progress for many decades.
Critical thinking, strength in cultural identity, and collaboration are distinct characteristics that shape the development of leadership skills. After gaining an in-depth understanding of the barriers, the participants are tasked with organizing a community event to address the issues of concern. All along, they have been increasing their English proficiency, expanding their understanding of the city and immigration as a driving force, and growing more confident in their civic skills.
As a result of her participation in the Immigrant leadership Institute, Mariam made friends with 24 other immigrant leaders in her cohort, learned about new strategies immigrant can use to help each other, and gained the understanding and the relationships she needs to be a powerful community voice in the city. She has discovered the power of collective action.
“Mariam is a cooperative woman with a contagious smile. Her availability to others is another of her traits. She tries to help others unconditionally,” said Walleska Lopez, one of Mariam’s teammates. “She has a good spirit and a sense of profound solidarity. I never saw her sad or annoyed.”
During the five months of the program, Mariam has been learning about the many barriers immigrants face, such as social isolation, understanding American workplace culture, building social capital to connect to opportunities.
Through the program, Mariam joint a five-member team — Akira Yoshida from Japan, Antonieta Molina Reyes from Colombia, Lynda Ferhat from Algeria, and Lopez from Puerto Rico/US — and together chose to study English proficiency as a barrier. Their research led them to hone-in on the situation in Northeast Philadelphia, a part of the city thriving with immigrant talent from all over the world but lacking in English classes and other opportunities and resources needed to successfully integrate into the economic and civic life of the city.
Sensing the opportunity to take action on the issue, Mariam’s team organized a public forum at the Northeast Regional Library, one of the few venues offering English classes in the area, and brought together representatives from immigrant communities, non-profit leaders, the Free Library, and the Mayor’s Office of Adult Education. At the end of the forum, the team proposed the formation of a collaborative project tasked with coordinating the implementation of solutions spearheaded by immigrant voices affected by the issue.
During the forum, Mariam played a key role. Speaking firmly in front of the audience she spoke about the challenge. Her voice and her passion in helping other immigrants gives her a certain charisma, but she is committed to collective leadership and using power with others. She is driven by her faith in action.
“I am really honored to work closely with Mariam,” said Yoshida. “Her integrity, passion, respect to others and lovely character are amazing!”
This September, Mariam is going back to school at Community College of Philadelphia, where she plans to continue learning English and building her career.
Mariam Ibrahim is a good immigrant leader for Philadelphia.-30-
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