Supporting Refugees and Asylees in Philadelphia – My Summer at Nationalities Service Center 

Kelly Zayago, GSE Masters in Intercultural Communication, 2024

On May 9, 2023, I stepped into the elevator of a historic manufacturing building in Chinatown and pressed the button for the fourth floor, unsure what to expect of a refugee resettlement organization located in an old warehouse. However, when I reached the reception area of Nationalities Service Center (NSC) for my first day as an intern with the Vocational ESL program, I was met with a banner that welcomed guests with translations of “Welcome” into almost two dozen languages. That welcome banner is an apt symbol for the services that NSC provides for immigrants and refugees in the Philadelphia region – support to welcome newcomers to our community and to offer language access support as refugees navigate a new life in the US.  

NSC is a large nonprofit organization that offers a plethora of support to refugees, from wellness to legal services. I spent my summer working with the staff in the Vocational ESL program. Adult refugees and asylees enrolled in employment support programs at NSC can participate in free English classes offered by NSC staff and volunteer teachers thanks to federal and state grant funding. However, the organization can only offer these free classes for the duration of a client’s participation in an employment program, which at most lasts a year. As anyone who has attempted to learn a new language as an adult knows, learning a language takes time, often much longer than a mere year.  

That’s where I came in. As the Vocational ESL – External ESL intern, I was tasked with finding additional English classes in the Philadelphia region that refugees and asylees can attend after they exit NSC’s free English program. In short, this involved researching adult ESL programs in Philadelphia and referring potential students to these programs. In practice, however, the task proved to be more complex. The vast majority of refugees and asylees currently enrolled in NSC’s Vocational ESL program are from Afghanistan and Ukraine. Because most of these individuals are still developing English language skills, our communications were mediated by Dari, Pashto, and Ukrainian interpreters.  

My experience communicating through interpreters was not always completely smooth—some conversations involved me accidentally talking over the interpreter, or the interpreter trying to explain the meaning of specific terms such as Zoom to a confused client. Despite these small (and sometimes humorous) hiccups, the opportunity to communicate with clients through interpreters gave me an extreme sense of appreciation and respect for the work that interpreters do in our community. Interpreters serve not only as language brokers but also cultural brokers and educators, helping both parties of a conversation understand how to better communicate.  

In addition, my job was complex due to the high need for quality, accessible, and affordable English language classes for immigrants in the Philadelphia region. Although there are a great number of agencies providing adult ESL classes in the region, it is clear that these agencies are currently strained. Several agencies explained to me that they currently have waiting lists numbering in the hundreds and that classes have already been filled up before registration even opened up for new students. Moreover, some of the largest agencies offering adult ESL classes in the city are located far away from the neighborhoods where many refugees have resettled, making it challenging for these individuals to access classes. Other classes remain inaccessible to students who need additional literacy support or who cannot afford to pay a fee for classes.  

Although I ultimately succeeded in enrolling some NSC clients in external ESL classes, this experience has spurred me to reflect on how well the English language learning needs of adult immigrants in Philadelphia can be met in the current circumstances. I truly believe that all agencies offering adult ESL classes are doing all they can to support refugees and asylees. It is obvious, however, that if we want to effectively welcome and support newcomers to the Philadelphia community, these agencies need more resources and recognition for the important work that they do. I am grateful for the experience I had as an intern at Nationalities Service Center, not only because of the opportunity to work with their dedicated staff and interpreters, but because this internship has given me a greater understanding of how integral adult ESL programs are to effectively supporting newcomers to the Philadelphia community. 

This is part of a series of posts by recipients of the 2023 GAPSA Summer Internship Funding Program that is coordinated by Penn Career Services. We’ve asked funding recipients to reflect on their summer experiences and talk about the industries in which they spent their summer. You can read the entire series here.

By Career Services
Career Services