A ball of yarn jumps from one pair of hands to another in a small circle of people, creating a network between them as it unravels. In a small library in East Harlem, New Women New Yorkers (NWNY) is just starting the day’s workshop. As late morning sun falls through the windows, seven young women plus two facilitators take turns asking each other questions and tossing the yarn. The participants are from Vietnam, Mexico, Russia, France, Denmark, Germany and Kazakhstan. Some have been here for years, while others have just arrived.
According to The American Immigration Council, one in five residents of New York state is an immigrant. In 2015, 2.3 million of the 4.5 million total were women. Immigrant women are more likely than men to be un- or underemployed, especially those who weren’t educated in the US, one in three of whom is out of the workforce.
New Women New Yorkers’ mission is to help immigrant women pursue careers or higher education in their new homeland. It offers a free workforce development program called LEAD that combines teamwork and leadership development with job readiness training, which ranges from resume writing to understanding American workplace culture. NWNY also strives to build a community of support around the women it serves, providing both personal and professional connections—some of which are the women’s first in New York City.
A December 2016 report published by the Migration Policy Institute reported that a growing share of new arrivals in the US are highly skilled: Almost half of the immigrants who entered between 2011 and 2015 hold at least a bachelor’s degree. And yet nearly two million immigrants with college degrees in the United States—one out of four—are either unable to find work or forced to take low-skill jobs. According to the report, immigrants face a number of challenges in their job search in the US. They are not familiar with the American labor market; they may have limited English skills; and they may encounter resistance getting credentials recognized by prospective employers.
NWNY founder Arielle Kandel has first-hand knowledge of these difficulties. A French immigrant with a long history of migration in her family, she launched the first program in 2015 to help empower other young immigrant women. Kandel notes that lack of confidence and language skills are typical challenges faced by immigrant women, but not the only ones.
“Even though New York is a very diverse city and is supposed to be liberal, open and modern, people still have many stereotypes about each other. And one of those stereotypical ideas [is] that immigrants are often uneducated,” Kandel says. “That is not the reality.”
“What I wish more people could see is that, all these women, regardless of background and educational level, have a lot of potential and talent. I want people to see how strong they are, how resilient they are, how many opinions they have,” she adds. “That is what guides me in my work.”
The focus of NWNY is on helping the women to find jobs, but Kandel points out that the programs have a bigger vision. They aim to inspire participants to follow their dreams, not just support themselves financially, in order to become leaders and role models to other women in their communities. That way, a woman “can inspire others to go new ways instead of following the way some immigrant women follow, like cleaning or child care, for instance,” says Kandel. “If a woman is expected to go work in a specific field and then she does something different—that is an act of change, really.”
In addition to the main program and a program for young mothers, NWNY offers career counseling sessions, roundtable discussions with immigrant women professionals, plus events like live storytelling with The Moth and field visits to companies. The organization also works to build bridges between immigrants and non-immigrants in the city. This year, it’s sponsoring an exhibition called “Real People. Real Lives: Women Immigrants of New York” at various locations around the city, combining photos with storytelling to give New Yorkers a taste of the immigrant experience.
One program graduate, Navrioska Mateo, moved from the Dominican Republic in September 2016 to be with her sister. With her, she brought her dog, an MBA degree and five years of experience in building and managing network solutions. In an interview on the NWNY blog she describes how, upon arriving in New York City, she applied for hundreds of jobs without success, despite having an advanced degree and several professional certificates. “It was either because I didn’t have local work experience or because I was overqualified for the position,” she says.
Though the experience was frustrating, it also forced Mateo to explore new avenues, including artistic expression. She exhibited her watercolors and trained to become a storyteller through NWNY’s partnership with The Moth. She was one of five people chosen to be part of the Moth Community All-Star Showcase at The Bronx Museum of the Arts, where she told her story in front of hundreds of people.
Mateo describes the NWNY LEAD program as a “support team” that allowed her to feel less alone in a new and bewildering environment. The training also made her feel more qualified to apply for jobs, and more confident in how she went about it. “It’s as simple as selling yourself. For some cultures, selling yourself is a bad thing. For the US, it’s expected,” she remarks.
And she finally got a job as a network engineer. “I am super hyped and happy. It was perfect,” she says. “Everything was not how I planned it to be, but as it was meant to be.”