Learning a foreign language is a challenge in any situation, but imagine learning it while beginning a new life halfway across the world. That is exactly what Akron resident Wafaa Borros did when she moved to Ohio from Egypt in January 2000.
Borros came to the United States to escape the religious persecution that she faced as a Christian in a primarily Islamic country. Back home, there was “a lot of fighting and war” between the two groups, she said, and women were not treated equally.
“I came here to find a big difference,” Borros said.
But aside from her brother, who also lives in Ohio, she had no one to turn to when she found herself starting fresh in an unfamiliar country. She initially brought with her two of her four kids, which meant she also had to find a way to support a family. This challenge was compounded by the fact that Borros had no money and no knowledge of the English language.
That’s where the International Institute of Akron stepped in. The Institute assists immigrants and refugees in their transition into northeast Ohio, offering language courses, financial aid and employment help. All of these things were crucial for Borros, who said she had no idea how to support herself and her children without the help of her husband.
“In Egypt, men do everything,” she said. “I didn’t know anything because my husband did everything for me before.”
This phenomenon is very common among refugee women, said Natalya Mytareva, communications director at the Institute.
“Many women now understand that they cannot leave everything to their husbands,” she said. “They know they need to establish their own credit history, their own bank accounts.”
As a result, the International Institute started the Financial Literacy and Entrepreneurship program for women in order to teach women like Borros how to use a computer, manage a checkbook and save up for a home. This program got off the ground in 2008 thanks in part to a $5,000 Women’s Endowment Fund grant. A second grant allowed the program to continue in the summer of 2009.
The program’s main goal is to provide foreign-born women with the language and skills they need to make smart financial decisions, said Shelly Durbin, Development & Public Relations director at the Institute.
“We recognized that women’s needs were different,” she said. “That’s why we branched out to focus on women.”
In Borros’ case, one of these needs was to learn how to send her children to college. Staff members at the Institute helped Borros fill out federal aid forms so her two oldest children could attend the University of Akron. This gesture was just one more way the Institute was able to help Borros and her family. In the past, they also helped Borros get her own apartment and gave her the supplies she needed to live on her own when she had no money.
“I started from the beginning, from zero,” she said. “The Institute helped me every day for anything I needed. They gave me a blanket when my kids were cold.”
In addition, people at the Institute worked with Borros to teach her not only the English language, but also about life in the United States. She learned how to take a check to the bank, how to go shopping, how to ride the bus, and many other activities that most people take for granted.
“The Institute always helped me,” Borros said. “They never said, ‘That’s enough for you.’”
In fact, Borros gained so much knowledge from her classes at the Institute that she went on to become an assistant preschool teacher. This new job allowed Borros to live out her dream of working with children and continue learning English in a real-life setting.
In December, Borros’s husband was able to obtain a Visa, and her entire family was reunited. She now lives with her husband and four children in Akron. Looking back, Borros said she’s amazed at how far she’s come in less than a decade.
“Everything is good now. The Institute changed my life,” Borros said. “My husband (who doesn’t know any English) came here and said, ‘You are my boss now.’ Everything has changed.”
This lasting impact is exactly what the Women’s Endowment Fund hopes to make through grants to organizations like the International Institute of Akron. In 2009, the fund gave grants totaling $54,200 to groups that aim to help women and their families.
Without these organizations, women like Borros would have a much harder time assimilating into a new culture and getting on their feet.
“If you trust God and you have focus, you can do everything,” Borros said. “If you need help and you come to the International Institute, they will help you. It is the perfect place; I love it here.”