Huddled in together in a midtown Manhattan conference room, the paths leading each of the dozen or so primarily Afghan women to the graduation ceremony were far less obvious than the possibilities now ahead.
The graduates, which also included a Syrian woman and a male high school student from Afghanistan, were gathered together earlier this week to receive diplomas marking their completion of an eight-week computer literacy course certified by the Manhattan School of Computer Technology.
“Thank you so much for this opportunity,” said Mashal, who just so happened to be receiving her diploma on her birthday.
Originally from Kabul, she was one of three participants who stood to offer brief words of appreciation to the room packed full with children, volunteers and HIAS staff. The informal ceremony at HIAS’ New York City offices was the first time some of the women had ever visited Manhattan.
The majority of the group, all HIAS clients, arrived as refugees in the United States within the last year. Four of the women settled in White Plains, New York, while the rest live in Queens.
As they strive to integrate and find jobs, the language and cultural barriers can be compounded by the need to attain a base level of technological know-how. The computer literacy course provided a way to tackle all three, but the hurdles to enrolling in the program were high.
“Access to computers, access to childcare, finding an instructor who could travel to them and communicate effectively—these were just some of the challenges that had to be overcome,” said Hadas Yanay, volunteer coordinator for HIAS New York.
“But the real sacrifice was by the students, who were truly dedicated to pursuing this educational opportunity.”
With the support of several volunteers who generously donated laptops for the course, Yanay was able to fulfill the need for computers. And, after learning that the Manhattan School did not offer classes in the clients’ communities, HIAS New York Employment Specialist Yalda Afif took the Manhattan School's training herself and became an instructor.
For several hours a week, she alternated between the HIAS New York office in Westchester and a public library in the Fresh Meadows neighborhood of Queens to teach basic computer skills such as keyboarding, e-mail etiquette and internet navigation, as well as software proficiency in Microsoft Office and Google Suite. For the more advanced students, some information and data processing was also mixed in.
The Queens-based participants, many of whom have small children, were able to accommodate some of their childcare needs by having the courses at their local library.
For Afif, who was able to teach the course in both Dari and English, the value of the course was about “building confidence and generating momentum as the women seek meaningful employment.”
“They want to work, and we want to help them acquire all these soft skills that are required by the U.S. job market,” she told HIAS.org.
Though the lesson plan focused heavily on professional development, the experience was more than just a resume-builder. Using the donated laptops, the women also learned life skills such as how to get around using Google Maps and proper e-mail etiquette. Afif says that some of the women would send each other test messages after class for practice.
Presenting the diplomas at the graduation celebration in the HIAS office on behalf of the Manhattan School, Galina Shumskaya echoed Afif’s sentiments.
“This may be the first official document of great value many of you will have received in your new country,” she said, “but this is just your first step.”