Marian Ahmed bursts into the room with a broad smile on her face, exuding strength and confidence. This 46-year old woman speaks frankly about her difficult journey as a refugee from Somalia to the United States, with a clear sense of gratitude in spite of the difficulties she has faced. She arrived in the U.S. in 1997 with her three children, two boys and a girl.
A recent graduate of Seattle Housing Authority’s ESL/Job Shadowing program, she credits it with “opening her mind” to the real world of job opportunities and work culture in Seattle. Of all the opportunities she has been offered as a Yesler Terrace resident, she credits ESL/Job Shadowing as the most helpful.
The program originated about a year ago as a partnership that includes Seattle Housing Authority, Seattle Central College, Harborview Medical Center, Swedish Medical Center and the City of Seattle (Parks, Seattle Center). The employers expressed interest in hiring local residents if their English skills met a baseline proficiency level. The program coupled ESL classes, including job readiness preparation, with a stipend and paid work experience of up to six months or 200 hours.
Marian Ahmed especially appreciated the job readiness training, including ESL. “They taught me so much that I need to know about working,” she said, “How to communicate, fill out applications, how to prepare myself for work, how to look for a job, from the beginning to the interview, from A to Z!” Ahmed has worked steadily since coming to the U.S., especially in the hotel business. “But I learned many new things here that I know will really help me in the future.”
The program was heralded by participants as extremely helpful and members of the group formed bonds of mutual support while receiving a stipend. Seattle Foundation and NW Area Foundation provided a grant to Seattle Housing Authority to fund the stipends. Case management was also a part of the program. Thirteen of the original 15 participants completed the program.
For Marian Ahmed, the program represented a jump start. It offered new language and culture skills that she expects to use in her future as a Yesler resident. Currently she is working as a custodian at the Somali Cultural Center. Eventually Ahmed hopes to have a food business at Yesler Terrace by re-opening “Mama Sambusa’s African Kitchen.” This was the business that she started several years ago and gained considerable success with. Unfortunately, health problems forced her out of business. She is also enrolling at classes at Seattle Central College to further improve her skills.
Seattle Housing Authority counts the program a success, and cites a number of important lessons learned from the pilot: the ESL component, including its job readiness curriculum, was as important as the actual job shadowing; the combination of exposure to an actual work environment and job-related ESL instruction was very effective, and; the program is working to help participants find jobs, though not necessarily where they participated in job-shadowing. As of November 30 2015, ten of the 13 ESL-Job Shadowing participants are currently working, and two are enrolled in additional training with Seattle Colleges. Nine of the ten participants who are working are doing so in the field in which they did the job shadowing.
Seattle Housing Authority is currently seeking funding for a second round of job shadowing, and partners are in place to participate early in 2016.