In the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, Keila Febus moved with her husband and 5-year-old daughter from Puerto Rico to Bethlehem.
The hurricane destroyed Puerto Rico in late September 2017. Among the ruins was the hospital Febus, 25, worked at as a registered emergency room nurse, putting her out of a job. She was devastated.
“I love working in the hospital,” she said. “(I like) helping the people and educating the families. This is my passion.”
In hopes of better opportunities for herself and her family, the Febuses moved in with Febus’s mother, Mary Arroyo, in Bethlehem. But because the nursing license Febus earned in Puerto Rico does not transfer to Pennsylvania, she is unable to work and will remain unemployed until her English speaking skills are strong enough to complete Pennsylvania’s nursing license exam.
To improve her skills, Febus has been attending English classes twice per week at the Hispanic Center of the Lehigh Valley, located on East Fourth Street in South Bethlehem.
Mary Colon, the interim executive director at the Hispanic Center, said the center has seen an influx of Puerto Ricans since Hurricane Maria. Even if these new residents are professionals, she said, they are struggling to find work because of barriers such as language and licensing.
“Here they are, American citizens, and we have many professionals coming — we have nurses, we have other fields — whose licenses don’t transfer over just like that,” she said.
To assist residents of the community, the Hispanic Center offers a variety of resources including its free English classes.
Milagros Morales-Santiago is a former English for speakers of other languages, or ESOL, teacher, at Bethlehem’s Northeast Middle School. She and Linda Porrata-Lopez began teaching English to adult students at the Hispanic Center in June 2017.
Their class sessions last between eight and 10 weeks and have comprised of both residents looking for employment and those already employed looking to improve their English.
“They want to be able to understand and communicate with the people they work with, which is no easy task because every job has its own vocabulary,” Morales-Santiago said.
She said she teaches English basics in her class to make her students feel more confident in everyday scenarios, like going to the grocery store or the doctor’s office, but she can also help students with specific needs. In the first session of classes, a few students were seeking employment, so Morales-Santiago practiced interview vocabulary with her students.
Morales-Santiago assisted Febus in obtaining a library card to allow her to check out the book she needs to study for the nursing license exam. Using the book as a guide, Morales-Santiago will be able to teach Febus the English she needs to pass her exam.
But Morales-Santiago didn’t expect to need to teach her much.
“She knows this, she just doesn’t know she knows this,” Morales-Santiago said. “When she starts looking at the words — because they’re Latin (terms), and they teach them in Latin — when she sees them, she’ll say, ‘Oh, I know this.’”
Febus said she recognized some of the terms in her study book when she first opened it and thinks the medical English terms she needs to know for her exam will be easier to learn than basic English, which she finds difficult.
Febus is taking her time to learn English and prepare for the exam, but she has no doubt that once she is ready, she will be able to find a nursing job again.
“I know there are a lot of people in my position,” she said, “and everything’s going to go forward.”