When Antonieta Molina immigrated to Northeast Philadelphia from Colombia in 2016, she spoke very little English.
In Columbia, she was a doctor, but those qualifications didn’t transfer to the United States. That was a challenge — starting from scratch — and so was finding English classes so she could learn to communicate in her new country.
“I couldn’t express myself,” Molina said. “I was afraid.”
She looked for courses in the Northeast but couldn’t find any open slots. So, she decided to enroll in classes in Center City, despite the long SEPTA commute.
Molina was part of a team of young immigrants affiliated with the Welcoming Center for New Pennsylvanians who hosted a community conversation last week about the need for more English language learning resources in the Northeast.
“The Northeast has a huge immigrant community but the opportunities are not enough,” she said.
To illustrate that point, the team, made up of Akira Yoshida, Mariam Ibrahim, Lynda Ferhat, Walleska Lopez and Molina, presented a map that highlighted the 19111, 19152 and 19149 ZIP codes.
The foreign-born population in the area is over 20 percent, and, in 19152, which includes parts of Rhawnhurst, Winchester Park and Lexington Park, the rate is 27 percent. However, according to the team’s research, there are only a few nonprofit organizations offering free or low-cost English classes.
In addition, the team, part of the Welcoming Center’s Immigrant Leadership Institute, conducted an online survey asking residents in those ZIP codes what they need in order to learn English.
Naomie Nyanungo, senior director of the city’s Office of Adult Education, was invited to speak at the event, held June 24 in the basement meeting space at Northeast Regional Library. City officials, she said, have noticed the shortage of resources.
“Over the last few years, it has become really apparent to us that the demand in the Northeast is really, really, really high, and the supply of educational opportunities is really, really, really low,” Nyanungo said.
For example, OAE is collaborating with the Mayor’s Office to offer English classes at George Washington High School, which is designated as a community school. Last school year, they offered four English classes, all of which filled up and there was a waiting list, Nyanungo said.
OAE will soon open its first myPLACE campus in the Northeast, which Nyanungo said will serve as a place where people can get English assessments and be connected to available resources and classes.
The location will open July 15 at the New World Association, 9857 Bustleton Ave., OAE told the Times. For more information, call 215-686-5250.
Melanie Menkevich, ESL transition coordinator at the Center for Literacy, who also spoke at the event, said she also sees a need for more resources for immigrants living in the area.
“I think that a lot of people in the city might overlook the Northeast because it is so far away from Center City, but it is the neighborhood that is growing with the most immigrants,” said Menkevich, a Northeast native.
“I think it’s really a conversation with other community partners, nonprofits, the libraries, and maybe thinking about what’s best for everybody,” she added.
After the speakers, attendees were divided into small groups and asked to discuss and rate the importance of several elements of providing English language classes. Factors included teachers, places and technology.
Ultimately, the team proposed establishing the Northeast English Learning and Organizing Project as a way to find solutions to the shortage. Fliers were distributed asking people to write down their contact information if they would be interested in participating.
Manuel Portillo, a Northeast resident who is the Welcoming Center’s community engagement director, said he’s not sure where the project is going to go, or if it’s even going to get off the ground.
However, something has to change, he said.
“We want to follow up on this,” Portillo added. “Something has to be done up here in the Northeast. This area has been very, I would say, underserved. The city has to pay a lot more attention to the Northeast.” ••
Jack Tomczuk can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.