Immigration: Welcome Center Offers Assistance to New Pennsylvanians

Immigrants trying to establish a new life in Philadelphia face many barriers. Financial hardships and finding a place to live can be especially arduous if they lack what most locals take for granted – like reading and speaking English effectively.

The Welcoming Center for New Pennsylvanians offers new inhabitants an opportunity to achieve their goals through numerous courses and services. Located on the 1600 block of John. F Kennedy Blvd., the organization lies just a few blocks away from City Hall.

BarrenecheaGreenFall14Welcome3Vice President of Policy and Evaluation Amanda Shilcock (right) has given The Welcoming Center more than eight years of her service. She also serves as a member of IMPRINT, an coalition of organizations that raises awareness of immigrant professionals and their success.

Helping immigrants to live among the local population is what she is trying to accomplish. Shilcock hopes that each individual will be able to produce a steady income, understand the English language and receive proper legal aid.

Since 2003, the organization has served more than 4,000 immigrants from 65 different countries.

“About 74 percent of our clients come to us by word of mouth,” she said. “That means their friends, their family or their pastor told them, ‘Come to The Welcoming Center, they will help you.'”

Shilcock constructed the curriculum by following the principle of “code breaking,” in which the culture – such as the language, norms and values – that immigrants have learned in their own place of origin can be transferred into the American melting pot.

“The code that you learned in your country wasn’t wrong, it’s just different,” she said. “In order to succeed in the United States, you need to know the code here.”

BarrenecheaGreenFall14Welcome2Desirée Wayne (left), a legal consultant for The Welcoming Center and a former assistant district attorney for Harris Country, Texas, has been part of the organization since 2009.

She manages the monthly legal clinics, in which clients can talk to lawyers about issues ranging from deportation to discrimination cases, free of charge. The program handles around 10 to 15 clients a month.

New residents often need help navigating the complex immigration laws in the U.S., said Wayne.

“In order to do that, we have a series of volunteer lawyers to provide free consultation to people who have legal questions,” she said.

While some immigrants are starting to build a strong foundation, others struggle with the basic essentials of survival and are in dire need of government aid. In some cases, eligible immigrants can receive state benefits, such as food stamps and cash assistance. Job placement is also a possibility through The Welcoming Center.

And with crime an unfortunate reality in the city – more than 6,400 incidents of retail theft have been reported this year in Philadelphia as of mid-November – The Welcoming Center has developed a series of brochures for immigrant business owners, Wayne said.

The organization also offer clients an opportunity to learn English as a Second Language. ESL programs can grant new immigrants the freedom to thrive in their community.

“One thing that is different about our English classes at our center is that we work with people to overcome their barriers with employment,” Wayne said. “Many of the students that attend the classes are here about 30 hours a week.”

The Welcoming Center strongly believes that immigrants improve the quality of life for everyone in the City of Brotherly Love.

“We believe that immigrants are a benefit to our community,” Wayne said. “They enhance the productivity and the profitability of businesses in the area.”]

– Text, images and video by Edward Barrenechea and Kevaun Green

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