2015 Keepers Honoree – Diane Portnoy
October 19, 2015
Keepers of the American Dream are the heroes who embody the spirit of immigrant achievement, contribute significantly to the well-being of immigrants in the United States, and are advocates, in every sense of the word, for the value of immigrants and immigration to the nation.
Founder and CEO, Immigrant Learning Center
Thank you, Ali, and the National Immigration Forum. I am honored to receive this award alongside these amazing women who have done so much for this country.
In the fall of 1949 my parents stood on the deck of an American converted battleship holding me in their arms, a 3 and a half year old little girl, as we sailed into New York harbor, passed the Statue of Liberty and onto Ellis Island. It was a cloudy, cold day. They were Polish Jews who had just survived the Holocaust and lost their entire families – everyone, mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles cousins. So here they were: no family, no friends, virtually no money, they didn’t know English, and they certainly didn’t know the customs and culture of this country. What they did have was the dream that this country represents: freedom and hope for a better life. Somehow they learned English, found jobs, even started a business, worked hard, and created a good life for themselves, me and my brother, who was born here.
My story is the immigrant story and this nation’s story. I see it every day at The Immigrant Learning Center as we give immigrants a voice in three ways. First, we provide free, intensive English classes to immigrant and refugee adults so they can become successful workers, parents and community members. I opened the school 23 years ago with 3 English classes, 3 teachers, 60 students, a waiting list of 80 and me. After all, someone had to answer the phone. Today we are fully enrolled with over 425 students, a waiting list of 500, a staff of 31 and 23 classes ranging from Literacy classes for those illiterate in their native languages to high level classes that include a Theater class where students write and perform their own plays about the immigrant experience as well as computer classes, family literacy workshops and citizenship test preparation classes.
Second is through our Public Education Institute that I started after 9/11 in response to the dramatic increase in anti-immigrant sentiment, rhetoric and misinformation about immigrants. People were actually telling me, an immigrant, that the problem with this country is immigrants and, unfortunately, it is still happening today. We educate the public including policy makers, the media, teachers, students, community leaders, business leaders, and religious leaders about the positive impact immigrants have on the country, the economy and our communities through such things as free on line workshops, in person presentations, web resources and an annual immigrant entrepreneur awards program.
Third is through research. Three years ago The ILC partnered with George Mason University to establish an Institute for Immigration Research that among other things looks at the economic impact of immigrants as entrepreneurs, workers and consumers.
Since opening the school we’ve been able to help over 8,500 immigrants from 118 countries; most find jobs, start businesses, enter training programs, go to college, become citizens and they can navigate our very complex health, education, economic and legal systems. I meet former students all the time such as the gentleman from Russia who is now a dentist, the woman from Korea who is teaching high school math, the gentleman from Vietnam who spent 10 years in refugee camps who today owns his own dry cleaning business. My husband is beginning to wonder about all these strange men who come up to me, hug me and say thank you! The research only reinforces what I experience daily.
The United States was built by immigrants. They have always made this country special with their hard work, energy and creativity, and everyone who helps immigrants succeed helps this country succeed.